Eason switches ‘omnichannel’ to fuse past with digital future

Store-to-online experience may give anchor on Dublin’s ‘auld triangle of retail’ the edge

Eason’s managing director Conor Whelan: If the bookstore’s various digital and physical customer “touchpoints” can be stitched together seamlessly, it should give it an edge over its digital-only rivals. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

In the environs of O’Connell Street, Dublin, three retailers of significant heritage have always held a special place in the hearts of locals: Clerys department store, Eason’s bookstore and Arnotts around the corner on Henry Street.

For Dubliners, they were like a romantic auld triangle of tradition, the landmark retailers north of the Liffey that for decades functioned as the city’s meeting points as much as shops.

But that was then.

One point of the triangle collapsed in 2015, when Clerys was shuttered by property developers in perhaps the most cynical deal of the post-crash period. The eruption of public anger over the nature of that closure drew its strength from Clerys’ heritage as part of that traditional trinity. Sentiments are soft feelings, but they harden dramatically if devotees sense abuse.


Arnotts, too, has wobbled under the weight of financial travails, and was taken over by its banks in 2010. They sold it to a consortium that included the owners of Brown Thomas, its posher, southside counterpart, a few months after Clerys closed. The blowback from the botching of Clerys convinced the new owners of the various Arnotts buildings to tread much more carefully.

And then there's Eason, the flagship of a group that comprises about 65 stores. Conor Whelan, the group's chief executive who took over in 2009 when Eason was losing €10 million a year, appreciates the weight of sentimentality attached to a brand imbued with such history and heritage.

Eason’s flagship has stood on its existing site for 130 years. Whelan is tasked with ensuring it remains there for many more. He has made the painful cuts, evolved Eason’s offering, and stabilised the €147 million-a-year business.

This week, Whelan briefed staff, shareholders and unions on the next phase of Eason’s strategy, for the next three years, dubbed Towards 2020.

It involves a €6 million investment in further store upgrades, a flatlining of the cost base and and the possible outsourcing of its books and stationery distribution facility.

Cost control on its own will never pave the road to long-term sustainability for traditional stores grappling with the leakage of sales to digital retailers. Whelan is turning to the approach that many bricks-and-mortar businesses hope will see them through: “omnichannel” retailing.

Omnichannel is a buzzword these days for virtually every retailer with an eye on the web. It means finding ways to fuse the physical store with the retailer’s digital channels, such as its website and social media presence, to create a holistic customer experience.

The thinking is that, if the various digital and physical customer “touchpoints” – the app, the Facebook page, the physical store and the website – can be stitched together seamlessly, it will give traditional retailers an edge over their digital-only rivals and ensure the long-term relevance of bricks-and-mortar stores.

Promotional campaign

Click-and-collect is an obvious, if rudimentary, omnichannel activity. Other examples might include a social media promotional campaign that delivers a voucher to, say, the store’s app on a customer’s smartphone. The voucher might then be redeemed either in-store or on the retailer’s ecommerce site.

Advanced omnichannel activities might involve using technology to communicate directly to a customer’s smartphone when they walk into a supermarket, perhaps utilising their online purchase history to direct them to specific in-store offers: “Hi, Mark. We see you buy chocolate . . . a lot. Check out the 90 per cent cocoa Lindt monsters we have for half price on aisle six today.”

Whelan has set aside an initial €1 million to invest in developing Eason’s omnichannel offering over the next three years. It’s not a fortune, but the book business is tough and Eason is hardly as rich as Croesus. It has to start somewhere.

The millions invested in Eason store revamps – all but one floor of the O’Connell Street flagship have already been spruced up and decluttered – should also enhance its omnichannel push.

The look and feel of a store should reflect the look and feel of a retailer’s website. A customer might happily browse the uncluttered, airy aisles prior to making up their mind, before placing the order at a later date online.

In this way, omnichannel retailing means the stores can serve as “showrooms” to drive online purchases. Whelan has already decided that the Eason.com brand should be made more visible in the group-owned physical stores.

There was a time early in the internet age when it was the other way around: websites were considered the brochures for purchases made in-store. The internet has turned traditional retailing upside down in recent years.

Few retail sectors are have faced as much upheaval as, or are more traditional than, bookselling. And few booksellers are imbued with more tradition than Eason.

Omnichannel is an ugly word. But it could mean a more attractive future for traditional retailers.



The Central Bank of Ireland displayed some admirable publicity nous on International Women’s Day when it released a report detailing the gender breakdown of all applicants for regulator-approved senior roles in financial services firms since 2012.

The news was hardly surprising – the vast majority of applications for senior roles in finance, more than 80 per cent in sectors such as banking, were made by men – but the granular detail divulged a few nuggets.

Credit unions, for example, are less gender-lopsided than their corporate counterparts, with an average of 29 per cent of applications for approved roles made by women. In banks, it is 20 per cent and just 18 per cent in insurance.

Mind you, there is yet to emerge any data proving that better gender balance makes for better financial institutions. Some credit unions were just as reckless, and in many cases even more so, than the profligate banks in the frothy days of the last boom. Many of them still suffer the effects.

Jumping as it did on the Women’s Day bandwagon, the Central Bank left itself open to scrutiny of its own gender balance. It fared reasonably well. Certainly better than the firms it regulates: a third of its 18-strong senior management team is female, while three of the 10-person commission are women.

The regulator of the regulator, however, the European Central Bank, remains an overwhelmingly male affair. There is just one woman on the six-person ECB executive board. Of the 19 euro zone central bank governors who are members of the ECB council, aside from Chrystalla Georghadji of Cyprus, all are men. A membership problem, indeed.


Recent company filings show that Jarrahdale, an Isle of Man company, has injected €2.6 million into Plusvital, the equine science company founded by Denis O'Brien's late father, Denis snr, who passed away a year ago.

It looks like the cash was probably used to pay off convertible loan stock of €2.6 million, which according to the accounts matured in December.

Neither Jarrahdale’s incorporation documents nor Plusvital’s accounts indicate whether the Digicel founder was behind the cash injection, or whether he was the one owed the €2.6 million. But it wouldn’t be a major surprise if he was both. If so, the cash injection would be a standard, circular transaction.

O’Brien uses a hatful of Isle of Man companies, although Jarrahdale has never been linked to his name before. It also the name of an Australian outback town. Who knows why they choose these names.

Meanwhile, the holding company for Plusvital has been renamed Lativsulp. Yes, that is Plusvital spelled backwards.