Eason bucks downward trend for booksellers

Retailer refinanced with Barclays, invested in innovation and widened its product range

 Conor Whelan, managing director of Eason, has overseen a root-and-branch restructuring to bring the business back to profitability. Photograph: Eric Luke

Conor Whelan, managing director of Eason, has overseen a root-and-branch restructuring to bring the business back to profitability. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The retail business has staged a reasonable recovery in recent years, but it hasn’t been uniform across the sector. As with newspapers, the economics of the bookselling business have been turned upside down by web publishing.

Yet Eason, the 130-year-old retailer of books, newspapers, magazines and other apparently at-risk species, is expanding its footprint, albeit tentatively. It has also invested heavily in innovation by developing new retail concepts and widening its product range.

It is an impressive turnaround that offers lessons for businesses in other threatened sectors.

Roll back a few years to the depths of financial crisis in 2009, and it is easy to forget Eason was in a heap. It had breached loan covenants and was losing €10 million a year. Internet distribution was destroying margins and bigger retailers such as Tesco were muscling onto its bookselling turf.

Eason wasn’t just standing on the proverbial melting iceberg; its core business was flowing away from it like a river.

Conor Whelan, who was appointed managing director when the company was at its lowest point, has overseen a root-and-branch restructuring to bring the business back to profitability.

Department 51

Eason also refinanced its borrowings with Barclays, which freed up capital to revamp its store network. It was ruthless in closing its worst outlets, yet it was also sufficiently courageous enough to expand its footprint once the right opportunities came along.

Retail is still a difficult place to be and the effects of Brexit on the sector are still impossible to gauge – about one-sixth of Eason’s network is in the North – but the company now appears to have a somewhat bright future.

When Eason management look out the window of its offices atop its Dublin flagship, they have a perfect view across O’Connell Street towards Clerys – a salient reminder of what happens when retailers botch restructurings.

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