Waterstones’ goal to isolate books after browsing not possible, says HMV owner

Quarantining books and CDs each time they are touched by a customer is impractical and impossible, the owner of HMV said, as he insisted sensible use of hand sanitiser is the best way to guarantee the “thrill” of browsing remains.

Major bookstore Waterstones has pledged to isolate thumbed-through publications for 72 hours, but Doug Putman from HMV said while that is a “nice goal” it is not realistic and would mean having to have a staff member per customer monitoring which products were touched and discarded.

Both well-known high street names will welcome customers on Monday for the first time in three months as lockdown measures in England are eased, allowing all non-essential retailers who can guarantee they are “Covid-secure” to reopen.

While there is Government guidance in place, the different approaches taken by Waterstones and HMV show that specific measures will vary from store to store.

The Waterstones plan sees the use of “browsing trollies”, usually placed beside the tills, where customers can set down a book they have leafed through but decided not to buy.

Those items will then be stored away for three days “until any threat from coronavirus transmission has been eliminated”, Waterstones said.

But Mr Putman, whose entertainment stores in the US and Canada have already reopened, said while HMV had initially considered isolating the music, films and games it sells, they concluded it simply was not possible.

Speaking to the PA news agency from Canada, he said: “You’re setting up yourself for something that is not possible to do.

“I mean, you can’t watch every person in the store, unless you have a personal shopper with each person.

“And, not that I’m trying to discredit what they’re (Waterstones) saying or trying to do, but we’ve gone through this in Canada and the US, and we’ve had similar retailers make similar claims.

“And I’ve went in and shopped those stores and watched and picked up books and put them down. And that just doesn’t happen.

“So, it’s a nice goal but I think the better, in our opinion, the better way is to really ask customers to practice super-safe hygiene, to make sure that they’re sanitising when they’re touching. To us, we think that’s the more realistic way to do it.”

HMV owner Doug Putman said customers will have to sanitise their hands before flicking through the A to Z section when stores reopen on Monday (Fabio De Paola/PA)
HMV owner Doug Putman said customers will have to sanitise their hands before flicking through the A to Z section when stores reopen on Monday (Fabio De Paola/PA)

HMV customers will be invited to sanitise their hands when they enter any of its 93 stores in England, and it will be “mandatory” to sanitise when flicking through the A to Z section, Mr Putman said.

Like most other retailers, there will be till screens in place and layouts have been changed to enable social distancing.

Of the experience in-store, he said: “The thrill of it (music and film shopping) is going through and discovering, and so you just can’t take that piece away from the store, but you do have to limit it, and you have to do it safely.”

HMV will also offer the option for customers to drop off a list of items they want which staff will then put together, and a planned “ring and reserve” service allowing them to pick up items ordered earlier that day.

Waterstones chief operating officer said quarantining measures for books have been “working quite well” in Europe and the US.

Kate Skipper told PA: “Everyone seems to be adjusting and it seems to be a relatively simple procedure.”

A trolley for books that have been browsed but not purchased by customers in a London branch of Waterstones
A trolley for books that have been browsed but not purchased by customers in a London branch of Waterstones (Yui Mok/PA)

Customers will not be made to sanitise their hands, she said, but added that she thinks it will become “default” behaviour to do so when you enter a store and see a sanitiser station.

On Monday 90% of their stores in England will reopen, with in-shop trading in Northern Ireland and the Republic already having resumed.

While the firm has a “whole slew of safety measures” in place, Ms Skipper said she is confident their shops can remain “a haven” for people who want to spend time browsing.

“Yes, there is a huge sanitiser station as you enter the shop, but it’s unmistakably a bookshop. It still smells like a bookshop, it feels like a bookshop,” she said.

“A book table is often two metres and it really puts a physical barrier between people. So I think that, again, it really helps the feel and atmosphere of the shop because it feels exactly as it was and should really.”

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