Bookshop chain Eason has announced plans to close its seven stores in Northern Ireland, putting 144 jobs at risk.
The company closed its shops in Belfast, Newtownabbey, Lisburn, Bangor, Enniskillen, Derry and Coleraine on 23rd March as the coronavirus crisis hit, furloughing all its staff. It has now launched a consultation process on shutting them permanently.
In a statement, the company said Covid-19 alongside Brexit had accelerated ongoing challenges to a business that has seen revenues decline by more than 30% since 2016.
Eason said trading conditions were “extremely challenging and uncertain” and growing losses would be “unsustainable” for the future.
Its statement said: “The announcement follows a detailed review of the stores in Northern Ireland in the context of the devastating impact of Covid-19 on current and future trade and the implications of a number of other significant factors on the future prospects and sustainability of the business in Northern Ireland.”
It added: “The Eason business in Northern Ireland has remained challenged for some time notwithstanding significant investment in recent years in individual stores and in staff development and training.
"While management and staff have in recent years worked hard on reducing losses in the business, progress has been undermined by significant cost inflation in NI.
"More significantly, the situation has been exacerbated by the unprecedented impact of Covid-19 on existing trade and the outlook for the business.
"Furthermore, the damage to business as a result of the ongoing uncertainty around Covid-19 has come at a time when the increasing likelihood of a hard Brexit represents a significant additional risk, bringing greater uncertainty and a further undermining of business performance."
Liam Hanly, m.d. of Eason, said: “Entering into consultation with our Northern Ireland colleagues about proposals to close the stores in the north of Ireland is very regrettable but it reflects the reality of the serious challenges and growing losses facing the business, which would be unsustainable. The retail sector has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19 and for us it has made a very challenging situation in Northern Ireland considerably worse.
"We believe the actions we are taking are necessary at this time to ensure our wider business has a sustainable future and to create clarity for our employees in Northern Ireland as soon as possible.”
The announcement has no impact on the firm's 53 stores in Ireland, most of which have now reopened. However, the company has already slashed around 100 jobs from the workforce there due to the impact of the pandemic.
Eason said, since reopening in Ireland, some smaller shops had seen an uplift in sales of up to 30% on last year. However, in city centre branches there were shortfalls of 40%–50%, due to social distancing measures, lack of footfall and public transport restrictions.