Inside the Australian and New Zealand book industry

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Shelf life: Profile of Booktopia’s Christopher Cahill

‘Most people think I work in IT,’ writes Booktopia merchandiser Christopher Cahill. He shares his career journey.

When I tell people I’m an online merchandiser nine times out of 10 I’m met with a confused look. Most people think I work in IT so explaining what I do for a living has become something of an educational experience. ‘I do product placement and manage the ad space for Australia’s largest online bookstore’ has become my regular spiel.

It’s a role I feel extremely fortunate to be in. When our CEO Tony Nash plucked me out of book-industry obscurity and put me straight into the role of merchandiser at Booktopia, it quite literally changed my life.

I’ve been in and out of the book industry for over 12 years now. My first book-related role was as a category manager at Dymocks George Street in Sydney. I was given the autonomy to make any changes to layout, to build the range and to take risks with new product types. That’s where I first saw how merchandising and store layout can make a significant impact on sales.

I was keen to expand my work by managing the whole floor but had next to no management experience. Thinking a more corporate bookseller might get me the management training I needed (and valuable experience I could one day take back to Dymocks), I switched teams and joined Angus & Robertson (then run by REDgroup Retail) as an assistant store manager.

In the red

Angus & Robertson gave me plenty of management training and experience but it came at a heavy cost. Melodrama aside, they crushed my book-loving soul. To executive-level management a book was just a product to exploit through homogenised stores and a supermarket-chain business model.

Books aren’t just a retail product, they’re a form of expression, a vessel for documenting our history, an art form. Books don’t just entertain, they educate and challenge us. It takes passionate and knowledgeable people to make this ‘product’ succeed in a retail environment. When a retailer takes books and turns them into mere products, they are destined to fail.

And fail they did. I was lucky to get out just as REDgroup purchased Borders in a last-ditch attempt to dominate the retail side of bookselling. After a drunken rant about how miserable I was at a Dymocks Christmas party, Dymocks not only gave me a job back, they made me the manager of the floor I originally wanted to run.

More importantly, Dymocks gave me back my passion for books. On the weekends when I got to manage all three floors of the historic bookstore by myself, I was in paradise. But content as I was, life forced me to move on from the book industry in my quest to pay my mortgage, so I sold my soul a second time around and worked for Australia’s largest telco.

The less said about that the better. Needless to say, I returned to the book industry years later when I saw an ad for a customer service position at Booktopia. I had never heard of them but I saw an opportunity to start at the bottom and work my way up. Thankfully Tony Nash had other plans and I’m now responsible for overseeing Booktopia’s merchandising strategy.

Moving to an online retail space has certainly been a good learning experience. I can react to trends and merchandise much faster than I ever could working in the bricks-and-mortar environment. People often forget that an online store is a 24/7 country-wide business, so customer data is being gathered all the time. I don’t have to wait for x number of customers to phone or walk into my store with the same enquiry to spot a trend. Now I can see the number of searches for any given subject, author or title any time of the day. It makes a huge difference.

Within an hour of spotting a trend I can have the related title or titles merchandised in prominent positions across the website (not limited by the amount of stock we have on hand or if the title hasn’t been released), add it to a campaign or collection and even put an order in with the supplier. We can promote and generate sales for a title months before the in-store date. It gives us a massive advantage.

Working at Booktopia has been a rewarding experience so far and I’m proud to say I’m part of the company. We cop a bit of flak for being a purely online bookseller but most don’t realise we’re Australian-owned and operated. The people I work with are passionate booksellers and writers. Our CEO regularly encourages consumers to buy from their local bookstore before considering shopping at Booktopia and the success of the company has brought much-needed positivity to the book industry.

After 18 years in the retail sector and nine bookstores, I couldn’t
be happier.

What I’m reading

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**K by Sarah Knight (Quercus) dropped on my desk yesterday and with a catchy title like that I couldn’t say no. Absolutely hilarious. If you want to take your Japanese art of tidying a step further then pick up a copy of this.


Category: Features Profile