Easons (Eason and Sons Ltd) bought over the WHSmith unit in Donegall Place last November and will reopen the refurbished store for trading on Friday as the company starts a new chapter in its retail history.
Having looked at the best book, magazine and stationery retailing in Europe and the US, Easons management team have made a serious attempt to increase the ‘stickiness’ of their store and keep customers in there for as long as possible.
Gone are the low tiled ceilings and intimidating rows of parallel book shelves. They’ve been replaced with bright vertical splashes of colour, curved shelving and zoning.
Managing Director Conor Whelan spoke to me about the new flagship store, Easons’ approach to the electronic/online revolution as well as the commercial realities of resizing stores and the workforce.
Magazines and stationery still dominate the ground floor. The escalator or stairs take you down to the larger bookish basement level.
The children’s section has low seating that’s a good deal comfier than the local library, and the teenage zone is nearby but deliberately separate.
The card and gift section is now downstairs, surrounding the wooden ‘gifting tree’ which will be redecorated as the seasons change. Self help and spirituality books are obviously big sellers and sprawl around the bottom of the flight of stairs.
Despite the dominance of dead trees in the form of papers, magazines, cards and books, the shop has a central section selling ebook readers.
Sony and iRiver devices are on sale, rather than the commercially more terminal Kindles. A couple of PCs also allow customers to order directly from the Easons website.
A giant picture frame downstairs can be used as a focal point for book launches, events and perhaps even festivals. Easons have teamed up with HP to offer a photo printing and personalisation area (prints, mouse mats, mugs etc) and there’s a forty-seat Costa coffee franchise to start reading your purchases, or wait for your photos to print.
One structural change from the previous tenant is the addition of a second escalator to bring customers back upstairs, cunningly depositing them in the back corner of the upstairs and forcing them to walk through lots of stationery and magazines to get out to the door!
Only time will tell whether novelty innovations like the HP personalisation area will be commercially sustainable. And an underground coffee shop so far away from daylight and mobile coverage doesn’t offer much scope for people watching (or picking up those late cancellation texts when you get stood up)!
However, the brighter and less rigid structure and zoning of the store must be welcomed … and will be rolled out as part of the wider refurbishment programme that will see the Foyleside Shopping Centre and Bow Street Lisburn branches renovated later this year.
With its proximity to the City Hall and sitting across the road from the Belfast Welcome Centre, all Easons now needs is a splash of local Belfast merchandise (beyond a few local authors) to resell local products and support local producers of cards and crafts.
At tonight’s preview Glenn Patterson reminisced about his days working in Cranes bookshop. Independent bookshops have all but disappeared, with No Alibis the only surviving one in the city since the closure of the
I remember buying home computing programmer books in a bookshop tucked away on Rosemary Street before it closed. NPO disappeared. Dillons became the second Waterstones, and then the only Waterstones when the other branch went up in smoke. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the new flagship Easons is at the expense of closing their other store: two into one meant job losses.
Easons have been trading for 140 years, and have already bought over WHSmiths local operation once before! From the look of their new store, Easons will be remaining a name about stores in Irish towns and cities for a few years more.