When is a chain bookstore not a chain bookstore? When it ditches its branding

One British book chain store has come under fire for setting up shops in small towns without its signature branding, raising accusations that it is instead masquerading as smaller, independent stores.

Owned by national chain Waterstones, three stores in the south east of the U.K. feature much quainter names and shop fronts: Harpenden Books in Hertfordshire, Southwold Books in Suffolk and The Rye Bookshop in East Sussex. It has been debated how clear the shops are about their true ownership.

Justifying the shops to the BBC, Waterstones Managing Director James Daunt said that, "if you want to really enhance a high street, you need to act as an independent," and added that in his view, the "vast majority have welcomed (the stores) greatly." CNBC has contacted Waterstones for comment and is awaiting a response.

Reaction to the stores has been mixed. One Twitter user wrote, "Better a good shop in a chain than a complacent indie!" But another reasoned, "How many customers know though? Very few, I bet."

An independent bookseller in the area told CNBC via telephone that he was "not particularly bothered by it" and that it was "better that there should be a bookshop than none."

Richard Cope, senior trends consultant at Mintel, explained to CNBC via telephone that for Waterstones, the "motives of doing this are to win greater trust," as consumers are increasingly "looking for more serendipity in their choices."

But, Cope cast doubt as to whether or not such a marketing strategy was necessary for the chain, suggesting that bookshops – regardless of the company behind them – "already appeal in a cosy, traditional, non-corporate way."

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