Indigo’s Heather Reisman needs to pick a lane

—With Heather Reisman back in charge, Indigo seems to be pursuing a ‘think big, act local’ strategy where “each store should feel like an independent,” says Éric Blais.—

Indigo’s Heather Reisman knows how to pick favourite books. But as gifted as she is at picking must-reads and curating a wide array of items that book lovers presumably love, she also needs to pick a lane. One that will ensure the long-term success of the business she once again leads.

As a strategic planner, I’ve often quoted Reisman when discussing the opportunity for brands to redefine their frame of reference. Indigo “is not a bookstore,” she would say. “It’s a book lovers’ store.”

It’s an important distinction, as it guides product assortment and in-store experience. It allowed for expansion beyond its original offering, thereby reducing its dependency on book sales, which were forever disrupted when Jeff Bezos showed up.

It’s ironic how Amazon—initially an online bookstore before it became an everything store—left bookstore chains wondering what hit them so soon after they themselves disrupted small indie bookstores. Remember The Shop Around The Corner, the children’s bookstore owned by Kathleen Kelly, the character played by Meg Ryan in the movie You’ve Got Mail? The metaphor of its transformation reflects the changing landscape of retail book sales.

It’s also ironic that Barnes & Noble, with more than 600 stores across the U.S. and now under new leadership, is hoping to stem its decline by offering a high-quality, in-store experience that customers cannot get from online shopping. How? Allow each bookstore to independently function as more of an independent community bookstore, rather than part of a corporate chain.

According to a recent profile of CEO James Daunt by The Wall Street Journal, to compete with Amazon, Barnes & Noble must “give people the stuff they know they want and the stuff they didn’t know they wanted.

“We’re here to help people browse,” said Daunt. A kind of think big, act local approach.

Reisman seems to be taking a page from Daunt’s playbook, telling publishing contacts that “each store should feel like an independent in its market,” according to The Globe and Mail. “That’s the organizing principle that we used to have some time ago… We want to reignite that notion.”*

And in that same article, Reisman is quoted telling publishers: “I can confirm that we are always at our core, books. The majority of what we sell is about books.”

That, in a nutshell, is Indigo’s problem. The majority of what it sells is books, but that business alone can’t meet Indigo’s aspirations. So, it tries to sell general merchandise to reduce its dependency on books, while claiming it’s still about books. It’s been trying to strike the right balance for several years now. American Girl dolls or Adidas sportswear are examples of this diversification.

To Reisman’s credit, she seems to now avoid the “cultural department store” descriptor. Yet, the retailer’s website still describes the business this way: “Indigo has evolved to become the world’s first cultural department store. Indigo is now Canada’s largest purveyor of ideas and inspirations to enrich your life, with books and eReading, specialty toys, gifts, and lifestyle enhancing products that affordably offer intrinsic quality, beauty, and timeless design.”

Recently departed CEO Peter Luis had clearly embraced that vision, telling Retail Insider that its new store in Toronto’s The Well would be a “total lifestyle emporium,” adding that it would offer customers an elevated experience that is much more than a shop—“a destination and social meeting place.”

This is another interesting twist, considering how the cozy chairs seem to have gradually disappeared, making Chapters and Indigo less of the “third place” they used to be. With critical holiday sales in full swing, the Chief Booklover is back in charge, making the necessary adjustments to rebalance the general merchandise so it tells the right story.

I saw what this means while visiting Indigo’s downtown Montreal location this week: the book “Imagine It! A Handbook for a Happier Planet,” one of Heather’s Picks, placed next to products from The Unscented Company.

Indigo doesn’t want to be just a bookstore. Most book lovers prefer independent bookstores, but also appreciate the convenience of Amazon. Cultural supermarket or lifestyle emporium are broad, ill-defined concepts that can lead to the situation Reisman is trying to correct. I hope this works, but I’m doubtful it will be sustainable.

However, I am hopeful that Indigo has a future in some future incarnation. It’s possible if it lives by the three words above its front door: imagination, creativity, inspiration. After all, who would have thought that a small store called Restoration Hardware, providing historical hardware and home fixtures aimed at restoring old houses, would one day be rechristened RH, a luxury home furnishing brand where we meet for a fancy lunch?

*This story has been updated to remove a paragraph containing incorrect information about Indigo’s Coles stores.

Éric Blais is president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec. He can be reached at