The bookshop Eason has told staff that it will not be reopening its stores in Northern Ireland.
The company’s seven NI shops have been closed since 23 March because of the coronavirus pandemic. All 144 employees are furloughed.
The company said Covid-19 had “exacerbated challenges already facing the business”.
Eason and Son is based in Dublin and operates more than 60 bookshops across the island of Ireland.
The announcement by Eason & Son NI has no impact on operations in the Republic of Ireland.
In a statement the company said it informed its employees in Northern Ireland of its intention to “commence a consultation process around proposals not to reopen its seven stores in Northern Ireland.”
It said the announcement followed a review of the stores in the context of the “devastating impact of Covid-19 on current and future trade” and also pointed to “other significant factors on the future prospects and sustainability of the business”.
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Employees are being invited to elect representatives to engage with the company around its proposals as part of a collective redundancy process which is expected to last for about 30 days.
The company said its 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”.
Its revenues have fallen by over 30% since 2016, including previous store closures, with accumulated operating losses in the period amounting to £1.8m.
In 2019, before COVID-19, the business generated £12.5 million in revenues and an operating loss of over £300,000.
‘Hard Brexit a significant risk’
The company said that effort to reduce losses had 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,” it said.
The statement said the damage to business came 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.”
Eason was at a “critical point” in relation to long-term leases, it said.
It said the outlook for its stores in Northern Ireland was “extremely challenging and uncertain” and the business was facing “significant and growing losses into the future, which would be unsustainable.”
Eason & Son said it recognised that the process will create a “very difficult and uncertain period for its employees” but that it would support them throughout the consultation process.
‘Incredibly sad news’
Managing Director of Eason Liam Hanly 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.”
Retail NI Chief Executive Glyn Roberts said it was “incredibly sad news” for staff and the public.
“Eason & Son was a household name and a hugely respected local business, and its closure is a loss to our retail sector.
“It’s not just the loss of the business – it is the reduced footfall for the surrounding traders located beside its seven stores that we also have to factor in,” he added.
He called for the NI executive to bring a recovery plan to help the NI high street and retail sector.