Q&A with Indigo CEO Peter Ruis

‘The days of browsing shelves are over’: An interview with Indigo CEO Peter Ruis

The book giant’s new leader has plans – some big, some small, some weird – to restore profitability. The multi-million dollar question: will they work?

Photo by Kayla Rocca

One of the perks of running Canada’s largest book retailer has to be endless reading. So what’s on your bedside table?
I have the biography of Edward Enninful, the Ghana-born editor who changed everything at British vogue. Then there is the novel Trustwhich according to my staff will be the new novelty.

Former CEO Heather Reisman, now executive chairwoman of Indigo, has developed a cult following with Heather’s Picks. Can we look forward to Peter’s Picks?
I don’t think so, but we are more than ever at the service of our customers. Suppose you buy a music book, we could also suggest vinyl records. It is to meet the needs of various customers. The days of simply browsing the shelves are behind us.

Why is that?
Indigo has about 15 million titles. More and more – and this has become important with people sharing their favorites on TikTok – you see a lot of hype around books that were printed many years ago, which almost never happened in the past. One of our best sellers last year was 2011 The Song of Achilles. He got this viral push, and then we made a special edition cover.

Conservation seems like a lot of work. Can’t find an algorithm to do it?
Customers can detect the authenticity. We have a team of readers who go through around 200 books every week to decide what to promote or recommend. Everyone has that friend with the best book recommendations, and Indigo wants to be that friend.

You started in 2021 as president. Was the succession already decided?
Yes, it was always planned for me to know the company and then become CEO.

What made you do the job?
I love building businesses that will be relevant in the future. People have been talking about the death of books for 50 years, but it didn’t happen. Our online sales have doubled during the pandemic. When it comes to my fit, I have a strong view on expanding our brand, which was originally just books and music, then stationery and toys. Now we have custom offers for all merchandise, which is my experience as a former executive of other mainstream brands.

Indigo started selling vibrators in 2020. Is this an example of what you mean by “custom”?
Bookstores are ideas, mainstream or not. Sexual well-being is an extension of this. In the 1970s, before sex education was widely taught in schools, parents would come to bookstores for advice on “conversation”. We want to promote what we believe in. We also launched a campaign asking Canadian icons to choose three things that define them. Margaret Atwood chose: “writer”, “lawyer” and “ornithologist”.

Well, now I need to know your three things.
I chose “father”, “traveler” and “cricketer”. For me, cricket is less a sport than a religion. It is difficult to explain its beauty to North Americans. However, I will say that I started getting into basketball. I liked going to see Raptors games.

You came here from London. Does Toronto already feel like home?
I live by the water and the area was eerily empty when I arrived in 2021. This year it was nice to see people piling up on the ferry again. My children are at university and my wife is in the UK. I come back to London once a month, and they come here. This summer, we had a great vacation in the Maritimes.

Indigo is launching a new store early next year at Front and Spadina. What makes it special?
It is a concept store that is part of The Well, one of the largest developments in Canada. We want people to come and have fun. The music section will have listening booths, like record stores in the 50s. We are also bringing a variety of new cafes and small local retailers, a bit more personalized offering.

I started with your bedside table. And the books of the desert islands?
I must say Gatsby the magnificent and 1984. One is escapism, and the other is more relevant than ever. Also The bonfire of vanities and The secret story. I come back to it again and again. I know, they feel cliche because a lot of people love these books.

Sounds like your kind is the rich behaving badly.
Ha! Looking back, these are titles that captured a moment and got people talking. That’s what I like. There’s this misconception that books that win awards are pretentious or inaccessible, but they’re just great stories that reflect our world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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