Foyles rewrites gloomy outlook for independent bookstores

The family bookseller swung back into profit last year, boosted by the adult colouring book craze.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 30 Mar 2016

Small shops have had a tough time of it lately. The rate of independent shop openings has fallen from 11 a day in 2010 to one a week last year, according to the Local Data Company and the British Independent Retailers Association. That’s the lowest number of independent business openings in Britain’s top 500 town centres since records started in 2009.

But not everyone’s quite so under the cosh. Family owned bookseller Foyles managed to return to profit last year with the dicey decision to unveil a new London flagship apparently paying off.

Sales at its Charing Cross Road store rose 10% as Foyles returned to the black – inching up an operating profit of £29,140. That's obviously still tiny, but considering how hard bookshops have had it over the past decade or so, many will take what they can get. And it's an improvement on the £600,000 loss it made the year before, when dealing with the costs of moving its Charing Cross shop.

So how has an independent store, and a bookshop no less, managed to buck the trend and stay afloat, for the time being anyway? After all, many will say they like the experience of buying from a bookshop, particularly a local independent. But consumers often fail to put their money where their mouth is - especially when the ease of ordering from Amazon trumps experience a lot of the time. Ditto the ease of e-readers.

Apparently Foyles has benefited from a trend also keeping WHSmith and its tatty carpets in business – adult colouring books. It might be baffling to the MT team, but the likes of Johanna Basford’s Enchanted Forest and Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom have been so  popular with people that colouring book sales were up 308% year-on-year, contributing to an increase of the group’s sales by more than 4% to £24.4m.

There’s also something to be said for capitalising on what ecommerce and e-readers can’t provide. Foyles said its focus on a jazzed up events programme and high-profile book signings helped to draw in customers. Authors including Hilary Mantel and chef Yottam Ottolenghi were on hand for the opening of the shop itself.

Whether Foyles will be able to keep the momentum from its shiny new store remains to be seen, but it's looking confident. The bookseller has said it’s ‘well-placed to expand further', with a Birmingham store opened in September and plans to launch a new branch in Chelmsford this year. In that respect it's easier for Foyles, with its seven locations, to contemplate expansion plans, as it can focus on being selective about where it opens. A bigger bookseller with stores all over the country would find it a tougher task.

And if the ecommerce beast that is Amazon does start its much-discussed move into physical bookstores, Foyles might yet face two-pronged competition from Jeff Bezos' firm when it comes to shifting books - online and off.

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