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'Our online orders went up overnight - we sold a lot of classics': How Covid-19 affected Irish book shops

Booksellers say that people turned to fiction in lockdown – and book sales are up 4% on last year.

Image: Shutterstock/Massimo Todaro

WHEN THE THEN-TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar announced from Washington on 12 March that the country was going into lockdown to fight the spread of the coronavirus, most retailers had to close – including book shops.

But the temporary ending of life as we knew it forced people to think about how they wanted to spend their time, and it turned out lots of people wanted to do more reading. Book sales are up 4% on last year, driven in large part by online sales during the lockdowns. 

To see what that meant for book shops, and how 2021 might look for the sector, we spoke to booksellers.

‘We sold a lot of classics’

“In March it when it all kicked off, what happened for us was we had to close the bookshop, close the art gallery, and we also supply a number of libraries overseas. That business stopped overnight as well because the university campuses were closing,” recalled Sarah Kenny of the Galway-based, family-owned Kenny’s Bookshop (which turned 80 this year).

“So all of a sudden our retail stopped, but at the same time our online orders went up. It happened nearly overnight. It seemed that people just wanted books for lockdown to get them through it, when they were spending so much time at home.”

Kenny’s is well used to online sales, having started selling over the internet almost 30 years ago. So the overnight increase was something it knew it could handle. “We were able to continue processing online orders. All the staff could still work, though some people were cocooning,” said Kenny. 

They saw a huge increase in sales from Irish customers. “We were doing online orders and we were doing phone and email orders, and customers were so happy to be able to still order books at a time like this,” she said, adding that some customers told the staff they believed Kenny’s was an essential service. 

“A lot of other bookshops and small business were scrambling to get inventory online, and websites. We were lucky,” said Kenny.

Customers told Kenny’s that they wanted to make a specific effort to support local businesses and independent sellers, as opposed to turning to large sites like Amazon.

“The message we keep getting is they want to support Irish sites,” said Kenny. “That’s been terrific and I think businesses everywhere are feeling that. It’s been a really positive story to come out of Covid for all types of retailers.”

Every announcement about restrictions brings another change in online ordering. “When the last lockdown was announced we got busier,” said Kenny. “People were shopping earlier for Christmas because they didn’t know if they’d be able to go to the shops again.”

They reopened the bookshop in June, and were able to keep it open until the lockdown in October. 

Looking at their sales showed Kenny’s staff that there were certain trends over the past few months.

“In the early months of Covid, particularly the first lockdown when people were at home and the schools were closed, we saw a lot of educational books for children,” said Kenny. “We sold an awful lot of classics and we noticed there was definitely a trend – people were buying Ulysses, Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Wuthering Heights. Those books you might read at some point in your life, and this was the point people were choosing to read them.”

Fiction was the biggest category for sales. “Lots of people would order five, six books by the same author. It’s been a really good year for new Irish publications as well amidst everything, there’s been some really excellent novels in Irish publishing.”

They remodelled a few things in the retail store during the early months of the pandemic. They also changed how they acquired stock, and got in “a whole load of new books” (the shop stocks both new and second-hand books). 

Looking ahead to 2021, Sarah Kenny hopes that the focus on buying Irish will continue.

We really just hope that that increase of people shopping with local businesses will remain. We’ve heard from so many people that they are reading more, that they’ve been finding they’re reading way more books and it has been great for getting to read the books they maybe never got around to reading, particularly if they’re spending more time at home. That definitely has been one of the positives.
Books have been something that helped people get through the crisis.

Dubray: “It was a time for concern”

Over at the Dubray Books chain, which is an Irish company with eight branches, managing director Maria Dickenson said the spread of Covid-19 “was a time of extreme concern” on a number of levels.

“It was to do with safety as much as anything else. You have a store full of staff, and you have concerns around that. It was a very concerning time – it was unprecedented in the history of the company. It was very worrying for staff, and the future of the company. When it became clear we were able to do some business online, that was a comfort.”

Dickenson said that during the first lockdown it took a while to find their feet – they had some turnover, but it was small. So work began on bulking out the online part of their offering, so that customers could turn there.

“I have to say how supportive our customers and Irish book-buyers have been throughout this,” said Dickenson.

Particularly in the last six weeks, it’s been really heartening how committed people are to shopping locally. We did about 20% of what we’d usually do online of overall business during the first lockdown.

This number continued to grow. Then the store was able to open when Level 5 lockdown ended, and the company had a “phenomenal” re-opening week. 

“We are still constrained on what we can do capacity wise,” said Dickenson. “People are shopping smarter, doing the whole Christmas shop in one go.”

Amazon is a “formidable competitor”, so Dubray turned to the reason why its loyal customers keep returning: the personal touch.

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“We had to find the best ways to communicate with customers and keep alive the book shopping experience,” said Dickenson. “People come into us because they love the chats, they feel comfortable and they love the familiarity of a bookshop – and they love our recommendations. Online can be transactional. We were trying to think, how do we do this, how do we make it personal? How do we get this sense of joy and discovery online?”

They realised the key was recommendations, so they “really dialled that up” on the website. They also did a lot more direct email communications with their customers. 

Their subscription service – where people can sign up for 12 months of bespoke book deliveries – also proved very popular.

Asked about patterns in book buying, Dickenson said that in the first few weeks of lockdown people went for “pure comfort – fiction all the way. Generally a lighter warm book, like the uplit genre.” They “couldn’t sell current affairs or non-fiction for love nor money” in the early days. Kids books also did really well during lockdown. 

“The big trend across all genres is Irish authors, Irish content,” said Dickenson.

It’s always strong this time of year but there is absolutely phenomenal support for irish authors. It’s lovely to see that ‘shop local’ message.

It’s been hard for the Dubray team to have a November that didn’t involve busy queues and selling books, but the reopening in December has shown that people are just as in love with book buying as always. 

“Customers are in good form, happy to be back shopping,” said Dickenson.

She said that anecdotally, she believes books are a comfort and distraction that are “second to none”.

“You can’t read and text – you can watch telly and text.” 

As for looking ahead, she believes that “the online part of everybody’s business will stay strong”, especially while Covid-19 means leaving home or going shopping isn’t an option for everyone. 

But there are more challenges to come. 

“The big challenge for the book trade is Brexit – and nobody needs that right now,” said Dickenson. “About 70% of what we sell right now comes in from the UK. With increased customs charges, that will eat into booksellers’ margins. The supply chain will be the big focus for the next few months of next year.”

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