BY: Benjamin Leszcz
ILLUSTRATION BY: Manshen Lo
Even if you’ve never heard of Kinfolk magazine, you’ve seen the aesthetic it pioneered: an overhead shot of a latte with a frothed milk heart, a halved blood orange against a minimalist background. Last year, Indigo recruited the magazine’s Canadian co-founder, Nathan Williams, to apply his zeitgeist-making pixie dust as the bookseller’s chief creative officer. Benjamin Leszcz spoke with Williams about slow living and the future of retail.
Last summer, you moved to Toronto from Copenhagen, where you’d been running a magazine empire famous for its minimalist—even austere—aesthetic and its super-thoughtful approach to consumerism. At Indigo, you have a more maximalist portfolio of products, from PAW Patrol trucks to cushions embroidered with inspirational slogans. How are you managing the transition?
In my first nine months here, I’ve been spending time with customers to understand their needs and pain points, which are mostly universal: People are lacking a sense of human connection and of community. They’re inundated with digital nudges and pressures to live a better life. It feels very natural, coming from Kinfolk, where we were addressing these exact same issues for our readers, to help them connect and nurture community. We were exploring the concept of quality of life, and that’s essentially what we’re doing at Indigo, through retail and on a different scale. We are here to support our customers in their journey to live a considered, intentional life.
Kinfolk emphasizes “slow living,” encouraging readers to make space for reflection and to prioritize things like intimate dinner parties. How can Indigo enhance its customers’ quality of life?
Consumers are looking for less but better. They prefer to buy goods from companies that stand for something and that have a purpose that aligns with their own lifestyle. The things that Indigo cares about, and that our consumers care about, are the environment, investing in our well-being, supporting the well-being of those we love and spending attentive time with loved ones. The way that we support our customers is by understanding the value of gratitude and by providing them with gifting solutions on a practical level.
“The way that we support our customers is by understanding the value of gratitude and by providing them with gifting solutions on a practical level.”
I visited Indigo recently. Respectfully, “less but better” doesn’t really seem like the mantra.
That may not be the impression currently, but having identified those values—of community, sustainability, healthy habits, wellness—we are making drastic changes across our assortment to bring it in line with them. The customer will notice this over the coming months and into the next year.
I’m sure you’ve followed the story of James Daunt, the investment banker-turned-bookseller who saved Waterstones, the U.K.’s largest book retailer, and who is now the CEO of Barnes & Noble. Daunt’s approach is to apply the ethos of Daunt Books—his independent London bookshops—at scale. This means doubling down on books over, say, book-adjacent accessories.
The approach that James is taking with Daunt, and now with Barnes & Noble, is a focus on localization, where the stores have a unique feel based on the local community. This is one of the main objectives behind the robust programming initiatives we’re rolling out. The topics, guests and workshops are all decided based on the needs of our customers, and our product assortment evolves based on local needs.
In recent years, scholars like neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf have argued that our technology-addled brains are increasingly challenged by the deep, sustained focus that reading a book requires. This rings true; nowadays, it can feel difficult to sit still for hours with a book. Are you optimistic about the future of your core product?
The market for books will shift, but books are a balm for the pain of technology. If someone is looking to invest in experiences, in a respite from the digital world, then books can provide that escape.
It’s often said that consumers nowadays prefer experiences to things. Do you see this as part of a broader shift, away from conspicuous consumption and status-seeking behaviour?
This shift is tied to the idea of conscious consumption. We’re aware of the environmental effects of the products we’re purchasing and hyper-aware of the value they’re adding to our lives. By comparison, an investment in an experience—travel or going out to a meal—is much more meaningful. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that the shift from stuff to experiences signifies that the customer is less interested in signifying their status. There is still a tie. There’s the expression “If you didn’t Instagram it, it didn’t happen.” A lot of experiences that customers pursue are also so they can share them with their community.
Doesn’t that diminish the quality of our experiences then? I’m thinking of someone buying a charcoal ice cream, holding it up for a photo and then chucking it.
Of course, there’s a fine line there, but I don’t see this as inherently negative. We are increasingly connected online but feeling less and less connected offline and in real life. The interest in experiences is an antidote; the more connected we are online, the more of an appetite we have to get out and create these connections and experiences in real life. An experience shared online is still an experience in real life.
How do you, as a retailer, navigate the balance between online and offline?
The objective is to connect our local communities online and then cultivate and nurture those connections in real life. The actual experience is when people get together in the store. And those are the relationships that continue after that event. It’s the approach that we took with Kinfolk as well. A huge part of it was our digital community. The friendships, the colleagues, the partnerships and the collaborations we created over the years started with the digital connection and continued offline. It’s recognizing the positive benefits of the technology, acknowledging the harms and leveraging the benefits.
So, you remain bullish on bricks-and-mortar?
Yes. If bricks-and-mortar is used to provide a cultural hub—a hub for connections and experiences—then I absolutely feel optimistic.
It sounds like you’ve come in as a brand-turnaround specialist for Indigo. Once things are on track, will you share that Kinfolk magic with another brand in need?
I wouldn’t have taken the position if it was a short-term gig. I was attracted to the opportunity because this is a brand that I’ve grown up with; it’s a brand with values that are close to my heart. And it’s been energizing to be in an organization that is willing to walk the walk. We’re not just saying that we’re interested in change; we’re taking the steps necessary to do that. I intend to be here for a while.