Blackwell's is closing five of its university campus branches to "protect the future health" of its business following the coronavirus crisis.
The closures will affect up to 20 staff at branches in St Andrews, Belfast, Bradford, Keele and Leeds. There are also six redundancies affecting the central support team based in Oxford.
The closures means the chain will be left with 23 stores. Blackwell's also said it planned to have a staged programme of reopenings, beginning with its flagship stores in Oxford and Cambridge on 15th June.
C.e.o. David Prescott told The Bookseller: “Whilst our online and corporate business have both performed relatively strongly during the period affected by Covid-19, the lack of revenue from shops has had an effect on the business overall. Accordingly we have conducted a business review which has led us to take some difficult decisions in order to protect the future health of the business.
"On behalf of all at Blackwell’s I would like to take the opportunity to thank the individuals affected for their hard work and service to customers over a number of years, and to wish them all well for the future."
Prescott would not comment on why the five shops had been chosen but told The Bookseller some of them were at the end of their lease. He held out the possibility some staff could be relocated depending on the geographic possibilities.
Prescott declined to comment on whether the five shops being closed had previously been considered for closure. He said: “We had that strategic review and then updated the strategic review in light of what had happened with corona and then we had to take the decision to close these shops.”
Staff at affected stores were informed of the closures individually on 1st June. One staff member told The Bookseller the news had come without warning and they had been expecting to get ready for reopening later this month.
The staffer said reasons given for closure had included the expiry of leases and the fact the branches were reliant on students who are drifting online. They said: “It’s really gutting for me and my colleagues. Several people have been working in that building for 30 years or more. There are people in their 50s and 60s who have never worked anywhere else.
“I love working for Blackwell's and I just don’t know what I’m going to do now. It was hard enough to get jobs around here before the pandemic, it’ll be impossible now.”
The chain has struggled to become profitable over recent years with its most recent accounts showing a loss on ordinary activities of £0.9m, despite a third consecutive year of growth. In January, well before the pandemic caused havoc for the trade, Blackwell's wrote to publishers asking for an additional 7% discount following a strategic review of its business.
Prescott said the online business had performed “strongly” during the lockdown in line with other retailers while the corporate business turnover had gone down, but some orders had still come through from public sector customers like the NHS.
He added: “Given what happened to the retailing industry, bear in mind you've got retailers like Primark who don't have any commerce offer and therefore their turnover has, I would imagine, evaporated overnight. Then actually I think the [Blackwell's] business has performed relatively well. But you're never going to compensate fully for having all of your shops closed from 23rd March. That's just inevitable.”
Prescott said Blackwell's hoped to get some of its flagship stores in Oxford and Cambridge open on 15th June and then have a staged programme of reopenings leading back to the return to university.
“We'll open our shops when it's safe and appropriate to do so,” he said.