There were days during lockdown where the postman would not have been remiss for thinking that our house was harbouring an influencer. With three 20-somethings all back under the family roof, and two parents who recently discovered the thrill of online deliveries, there was, I say with shame, a considerable amount of parcels arriving at our door. We weren’t alone in this.
Online sales in Ireland grew by 200% during lockdown, while retail sales fell by 30% according to research conducted by Retail Excellence. Lockdown has accelerated even further the growth of online retail, with the major players in the online world being the ones to profit the most.
It has been widely reported that over the course of this global pandemic some of the world’s richest people only got richer. It is estimated that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos added $34.6 billion to his wealth from April to June of this year. This was at the same time that Amazon workers were protesting over unsafe working conditions in company distribution warehouses during the pandemic.
These complaints are only the latest in an already long list of issues Amazon workers have raised against the company in recent times. And while spends with online retail giants continue to grow, the situation brick and mortar retailers find themselves left in is not an enviable one.
When we think of the tension between online retail giants and small businesses, independent bookshops are the quintessential example of a business negatively impacted by the presence of an online giant, in this case, Amazon and its subsidiary, Book Depository.
For a lot of people during lockdown, suddenly out of work or unable to see friends and family, there was new-found time in the day to fill and reading became a way to pass that time and escape from the daily briefings, updates and social media scaremongering.
But while lockdown restrictions meant that delivery times for online purchases were in most cases longer than usual, independent bookshops had the flexibility to be able to continue to take orders through social media and over the phone and deliver orders to customers by foot, car and even bike.
Irene Gahan, owner of Academy Books in Southgate Shopping Centre in Drogheda and Tom Muckian, owner of Roe River Books in Dundalk are two local business owners who did that – keeping their customers supplied with books over the lockdown period. Irene believes that independent bookshops’ advantage over bigger chains and online retailers lies in their ability to be flexible.
It was this flexibility that allowed her to react in a proactive way to the government lockdown that saw her shop close its doors in mid-March. Academy Books began taking orders through social media and doing deliveries by foot within 2km. They would also throw in a free second-hand book with every order.
“Covid was one of those black swans. It was a black swan in the bookshop sense because no one ever expected to be as busy in lockdown,” Irene tells LouthNow.ie. “ I mean our sales literally dropped through the floor in terms of where they previously were, but there was amazing support in the community. Even if it was five orders a day, I was absolutely ecstatic.”
Academy Books had only been open a mere 11 months when the government imposed lockdown began in March. From the beginning, Irene has taken a community-based approach to business, offering book clubs for children and adults, complimentary gift wrapping on presents and offering customers a personal shopper experience in-store.
They also have a large range of second-hand books instore that they curate themselves. “We have fifth year, sixth year and college students who worked with us last year and who will come back this year. So the way I look at it is, we’re doing our best to provide jobs in the local community and give students jobs,” Irene said.
During lockdown, this community based approached only became more important to Irene who would also deliver bread and milk to people cocooning while out doing her book deliveries. “Sometimes you would get somebody phoning from Tipperary who would say ‘My mum’s on her own up in Drogheda. She’s cocooning, there’s no one there. Any chance you could get her this book and drop it up to her?’ And then inevitably we’d get there and I’d stand at the end of the driveway and we’d chat and I thought that was lovely. That really kept me going as much as anything.”
Tom Muckian takes the same approach to his business. Having previously owned a bookshop in the late eighties, Tom bought Roe River Books in 2007. Originally called Carroll’s Books, it changed it’s name to Roe River Books five years ago.
Over the course of that time, the main changes he has noticed haven’t been over the last ten years, but between when he had the first bookshop and his current one. “”The big difference now is the distraction and the competition for peoples reading time. The Kindle is probably the other big competitor because we obviously can’t sell digital downloads.
“From listening to people in the industry, it’s probably topped out at this stage, it has maybe 20 – 25% of the regular reading market and I don’t think it will go much above that. People like the format of the book, they like the smell of it, the feel of it. They like to physically have it in their hand, so I think what you’ve left with then in bookshop terms is a small but dedicated and regular book-buying clientele that sort of appreciate what you do.
“They like coming into the shop. They can exchange views on books, get recommendations on books. Half the books I’ve read are recommendations made to me so it’s a two-way thing,” he explains.
Earlier in the year, Tom himself looked to find ways to pivot and allow new ways for literature hungry customers to access books easily. He teamed up with Arthur’s XL shop on the Newry Road, providing a selection of books for sale there – in a store that remained open throughout. They stocked a stand with over 100 titles including fiction, non-fiction, Irish interest and books for younger readers.
It was an example of local, independent shops having their own back, offering community-orientated services to local people.
The subject of online retail giants is not one either shop shies away from discussing. What can independent’s do to compete with the likes of Amazon? In Tom’s view, not much. “I can’t really do much to compete with them. I think what you can do is try to promote the gospel of shopping local.
“Amazon have a data centre proposed for Drogheda and they’ve just announced a distribution centre for Dublin. You’ll have ministers getting their pictures taken, and local councillors will be out saying ‘This is great for the local area’. But nobody is ever there when a small shop in Newcastle West or Ballyshannon is closing directly as a result of it becoming increasingly difficult for retail to function in this country because the government have long since adopted a laissez-faire attitude to Amazon selling into the country and paying no tax on retail.
“Retail still employees close to 45 % of the people in the country. They’re not executive, high-level jobs in Dublin, but they are shops that keep communities together in small towns and villages all over Ireland. They’re shops that allow family businesses to stay open, that allow kids the opportunity to stay in that town or village rather than have to get on a bus and go to Dublin and get a job in a call centre or a distribution centre.
“And they’re closing because the government have decided to completely ignore the threat of online selling,” Tom said.
He also points out his frustration at the comparison between online and offline price points. “Ireland isn’t full of empty retail units because people in those units were making a fortune.”
Meanwhile in Drogheda, Irene says bigger chains undercutting prices on new books hurt independent retailers. Everybody has a slice of the pie in some ways,” she said. “I don’t like how some of the bigger chains undercut some of the newer books. Some of the bigger chains buy them and sell them at a loss which does hurt independents as they can’t afford to do that.
“But then they are not offering the same style of service we are. I think there’s a place for everybody but I suppose not being too naïve – it is about price, it is about availability.”
What is strikingly clear from speaking to both Tom and Irene is that for them, owning a bookshop is a vocation. Their love of books started in childhood and is something they have carried with them through life and are eager to see in other people.
Neither of them got into the business to make a fortune, but making a living at all is becoming increasingly difficult. As consumers, we have the ability to vote with our wallets. Where we choose to spend our money has a direct impact on what our community looks like at large.
Tom’s outlook on the future of independent bookshops is one of shrewd realism, or maybe pessimism, depending on your perspective.
“We employ local people. We pay our taxes, unlike online billionaires who make half their money by never having to pay tax. But it’s just the way of the world, it’s never going to change, we just have to live on the margins and sort of get a living that way.”