Wesley Owen has announced it may close all but one of its chain of Christian bookshops, saying the bricks and mortar business has been overtaken by digital and online growth.
The chain closed its Bath and Bristol branches at the weekend, resulting in 18 job losses, and has told staff and suppliers it intends to “significantly reduce its high street presence.”
Currently 15 employees are in consultations about the future of their jobs and the company’s retail director, Steve Mitchell, told The Bookseller:“We think there will be one – but maybe two or three stores left.”
The company, owned by Australian business Koorong, bought the eight stores - cited in Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, Bromley, Coleraine, Derby, Glasgow, and York - along with Authentic Book Publishing in December 2009, after Wesley Owen’s parent company IBS-STL went into administration. Other former Wesley Owen shops were bought by Living Oasis – which has since collapsed – while CLC International (UK) bought a further six stores.
Mitchell said: “Making the decision to do this has been as hard as decisions get. It is partly to do with the economic position, but even if we had waited until the economy got better it is a brave man to bet against the online business which is so rapidly growing. We have seen our online business growing significantly – 3-400% in the last two years – and we recently started selling e-books and that has taken off rapidly too.”
Mitchell said the company was in talks to sell some of the shops to individuals but added that these talks, along with the staff consultations, could go on for “weeks” yet.
In a note to suppliers, Mitchell wrote: “Following a review of its retail chain, Wesley Owen has decided to focus primarily on the online and digital areas of its business, and plans to significantly reduce its High Street presence. This move is based on the significant growth of online sales, and the mounting financial challenges of running a chain of large city centre specialist Christian stores. We have taken this decision very reluctantly, as we have valued and committed staff teams, and as far as possible we wish to protect jobs and the local ministry. We have been working to see if these stores can be passed into new hands, and it is our view that the charity or independent model is now the best option to maintain physical Christian stores.”