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Sam Boal
Yule want to read this

It won't be anything like a normal Christmas but some retailers are hopeful online sales will keep things ticking over

Business owners wonder what the shortened seasonal lead-in will mean for them.

WITH ALL THE discussion this week about Level 5 and how it will impact on our Christmas experience this year, you would be forgiven for thinking Santa is coming down the chimney next week and not in two months’ time.

But for many businesses forced to close their doors to customers for the next six weeks, the latest round of public health restrictions has telescoped their traditional lead-in to the holiday.

It means they’re having to think long and hard about their priorities ahead of the seasonal rush.

“At this moment in time, we know that we will be able to sell books online. We don’t know that we’ll be able to open the shop to customers but we hope to,” says Galway bookseller Tómas Kenny.

“So we’re putting our eggs in the online basket at the moment.”

Alongside his family, Tómas runs Kenny’s Bookshop on the Tuam Road in Galway City.

Even if the Level 5 restrictions are lifted in early December, Kenny says he’ll be navigating uncharted waters.

“Generally, the first two weeks of December are absolutely insane. That’s our absolute best two weeks online for the entire year because people traditionally stop ordering online on about 14 or 15 December,” he explains.

“That’s the two weeks they’re talking about lifting the restrictions when — obviously everything going to plan — we might be able reopen our bookshop to customers.

“If we’re very busy online in those first weeks of December, it might be very difficult to divert resources to the shop.

“Now, it’s a happy problem to have too many orders but it’s definitely something I’m a bit worried about. It’s only going to be a three or four-week Christmas — are we funnelling all of the customers in too quickly?”

That says, he thinks the pandemic will have changed a lot of habits and he doesn’t see book lovers “pivoting totally back to retail at the December”.

“Even if there’s a decent amount of people coming into the shop, it won’t be anything approaching a ‘normal Christmas’. People are just going to be buying online — they’re just too nervous.”

Family business

If any family in business is well-placed to speak to the impact the pandemic has had on online sales, it’s the Kennys.

Having launched their first website in 1994, a year before Amazon, their bookshop can claim to be first in Ireland to have an online presence and one of the first in the world.

So even before Covid, online sales were a massive part of their revenue stream.

Kenny’s already sold a huge amount of books internationally, shipping to as many as 165 countries per year, Tómas says.

A large portion of that international business is gone, he explains, because the pandemic has made posting and shipping a lot more difficult.

Tómas doesn’t think it’s coming back either, at least not in the short-term.

But something very interesting has happened since March — Irish customers are doing more and more of their book shopping online.

All going well at Christmas, Kenny says, Irish online sales may have increased by 300% this year.

While he says he’s “not foolish enough or hopeful enough” to think that this increase will cover totally the loss of a chunk of his shop’s international business, it will make up for a lot.

Crucially, he thinks “the website itself is going to generate enough sales to keep everybody’s job here for the foreseeable future”.

Younger audience

Paraic Horkan is also hopeful that his Christmas plans will be saved by online sales.

He co-owns Horkans Garden Centres, operating four stores across the country, in Mayo, Galway, Sligo and Wicklow.

Garden centres, like bookshops, are also not included on the list of essential retailers published by the government this week.

Speaking to last Tuesday, Horkan said he was frustrated with the logic of the decision, which means he’ll have to pivot completely to online and collection services over the coming weeks.

“We do have a strong online presence and that traded very strongly during the early Covid period,” he said.

“In fairness, the younger — the families, the young couples and so on — did switch to buying their plants online are obviously not the same level, but we did have a relatively strong online business.”

The flipside, Horkan says, is that it’s “kind of unfair” to ask his older customers to buy things online if they’re not particularly “digitally aware”.

He anticipates a busy Christmas period, however, and he’s delighted to be able to keep staff on during the Level 5 restrictions.

“That’s our strategy at the moment. We’re going to maintain our staff during the six week period because we’re expecting a very, very busy December,” he said.

Like Kenny, Horkan things the pandemic has changed certain consumer habits, some for the better in his case.

Coming out of lockdown in the summer months, “we had a huge amount of people getting into gardening and visiting the garden centres,” Horkan explained.

He believes that interest will be maintained in the coming weeks.

“We expect to see a huge cohort of people going online but once we reopen, the fresh Christmas trees will be in,” he added

“So we’ll bear the six weeks. We’ll get through it with the expectation that we’ll have a fantastic December.”

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