The largest British book retailer, Waterstones, completed the acquisition of its’ independent high street rival, Blackwell’s, on Monday, in the hopes of expanding their dominance over the UK sector as sales soar in a post-pandemic resurgence. Nielsen reported UK book sales reached decade highs in 2021, reflecting 212 million sold copies, far outweighing the retail-wide impacts of COVID-19 restrictions.
Whilst the exact size of the deal remains confidential, insiders reported days before the deal was inked that Blackwell’s expected to reach an agreement in the ‘low single digit millions’. The estimated figure falls far short of the £572 million paid for the publishing arm, Blackwell’s Publishing, by US publisher John Wiley in 2006.
Before Monday, Blackwell’s, Britain’s biggest independent book seller, owned 18 stores across the country, including the 25,00 sq ft flagship shop on Oxford’s Broad Street, having opened in 1879 to serve university students for almost a century and a half, housing a wide range of academic literature. The American owned Waterstones, having been purchased by the hedge fund, Elliott Advisors, in 2018, has 291 shops spanning the UK, Ireland, Amsterdam and Brussels, dwarfing that of its’ target.
According to the most recent accounts uploaded to Companies House, Blackwell’s had recorded losses for seven years on the trot, holding net liabilities equal to £3.82 million in the year ended January 2nd, 2021, a reduction of £160,000 from the year prior. The retailer, like most other high street chains, suffered considerably during the pandemic, having to close 5 of their university campus branches in June 2020 after suffering a considerable lack of income caused by the first lockdown, which likely had knock on effects to top line growth. In early February, Blackwell’s issued a statement outlining its desire to find a new owner, following failed attempts to refinance the business, alongside an unsuccessful attempted transition towards employee ownership in 2021. In a direct quote, owner, president, and last familial heir to the businesses, Toby ‘Julian’ Blackwell, said: “I would have loved to have handed over the company to its staff but I also accept that in order to grow and remain competitive, it is time for new ownership, ideas and investment.”
Post-acquisition, those close to the deal believe Blackwell’s will continue to operate as its own brand. This operational decision is similar to that of Waterstones’ choice to allow Foyles to remain singular after the acquisition in 2018.