Thursday 8 December 2016

Books make a big comeback as one of the country's oldest brands eyes online growth

With a mission to inspire, Eason's Brendan Corbett explains to John McGee how it has survived and thrived

John McGee

Published 06/11/2016 | 02:30

Brendan Corbett, head of marketing, Eason and Son says online sales are growing all the time
Brendan Corbett, head of marketing, Eason and Son says online sales are growing all the time

With more than 1,000 staff, 63 stores on the island of Ireland and a turnover in excess of €220m, Eason and Son is one of Ireland's oldest and most iconic brands. Brendan Corbett, who has been head of marketing since 2014, has been a key driving force in developing the brand and helping the company return to profitability last year when it turned in a net profit of €1.2m compared to a loss of €2.7m the previous year.

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The past few years have been tough for the Irish retail sector. How has Eason fared?

"Like so many Irish retailers, we have come through a period of turbulence within the industry and some of our key categories, particularly magazines and books, would have been particularly challenged. Thankfully, we saw good growth across the various categories last year and this continued into this year."

"But the Eason brand has endured for 130 years and it's a resilient brand. This being the centenary of 1916, the store was destroyed during the Easter Rising - so it has overcome many challenges down through the years."

How does a bricks and mortar business like Eason compete with the likes of Amazon?

"It's very hard to compete with a behemoth like that. Amazon changed the market hugely when it first set up and it has an even bigger presence in it now.

But we have to play to our strengths and one of them is our local knowledge and our support for Irish titles and authors. We also have a very strong relationship with the publishers and the authors on the ground and they look to us for guidance and support. But we are also competitive too."

"It's also important that we have a strong brand and one that is recognisable and respected throughout Ireland.

We score very highly around things like our advocacy and in the last RepTrak survey, we came out on top as Ireland's most reputable retailer. So when things like that come into play, it puts us on a strong footing and we play to these strengths.

"But we also have our own online platform and this has more than doubled its sales over the last three years. Now 10pc of all our book sales are online and growing all the time. So we are able to compete and we see online as a real opportunity for the company to grow in the future."

"We also have an omni-channel vision for the business. It's no longer just a case of the looking at the customer through one or two channels, it's about giving them a seamless and unified experience across all our channels and this is a big opportunity for us."

In an increasingly digital world, how are sales of books and magazines performing?

"Magazines are going to remain challenged in the future but books are making a comeback with children's books and the young adult category in particular showing good growth. People have moved back from ebooks and tablets to the printed book which is great because it's the lifeblood of our business.

We've seen similar trends in the music industry too where people are back buying vinyl and CDs. Books are tangible products that people like to hold and feel but they also like the in-store experience that we have created for them to browse and linger before they buy anything.

"We also do a lot to promote book sales throughout the year and we have a very strong literacy agenda which sets out to raise levels of literacy across Ireland and to raise awareness of the positive benefits of reading and writing. This has been a huge success for us.

"When times were challenged we also had to look at other categories and initiatives that were complementary to books. Our north star is to inspire and engage minds of all ages, so we introduced new educational, engaging and constructive toys that complement our books and these have been a success. But we would never invest in toys or things like video games because that's not what we are about."

How will Brexit impact on the business?

"There's no doubt about it but Brexit is going to be a challenge. About 70pc of the books we stock have a sterling price on the jacket and with the softening of the exchange rate it is something that we have to be cognisant of.

While we do hedge, there is still uncertainty out there and at the end of the day, the consumer doesn't know that we have bought in sterling at a particular rate and set our prices based on that. So as a populist book seller, we have to try and remain as competitive as possible and while it's probably stating the obvious, we simply can't afford not to be."

In the run up to the all-important Christmas trading period, where is the customer mindset at the moment?

"It's positive, thankfully. We survey our customers a lot and we are very close to them. Customer insights steer pretty much everything we do and we would survey them on a regular basis through our own brand trackers and then through other quantitative surveys that we run.

We would have seen that in the run up to Christmas, customers have more money to spend and they are more positive about the economic outlook. So hopefully we will have a good Christmas."

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