Eslite targets mainland and HK with bookshop-anchored lifestyle centres
Mixed merchandising in its bookshop-anchored lifestyle centres is Taiwan firm's key to success
Ralph Jennings in Taipei
The chain that created a bookshop culture in Taiwan is studying plans for more shops in Hong Kong and as many as four on the mainland.
Its management expects its unusual mix of merchandise to be a hit with customers from across the strait as well.
Eslite, which was founded in Taiwan 23 years ago and now operates 40 often packed shops around the island, opened an outlet on August 10 in Causeway Bay and hoped to open three more in Hong Kong, general manager Jack Lee said.
Lee said that by 2014 it hoped to open a twin-tower entertainment city in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, and would be looking to Beijing and Shanghai for as many as three future properties.
Eslite's books, a million of which are sold in Taiwan each year, account for just 30 per cent of the chain's NT$12 billion (HK$3.1 billion) in revenue.
Taiwanese readers don't always buy what they read but instead order drinks at a shop's sideshow coffee houses. More find their ways to Eslite's malls of concessionaire-run bakeries, and clothes, cosmetics and soap outlets. The same mixed-merchandising formula would appeal to the mainland and Hong Kong as reading and lifestyle habits changed, Lee said.
"Eslite's target is to be the Greater Chinese world's most influential independent brand in the cultural and creativity fields," Lee said in an interview with the South China Morning Post. "Being a Taiwanese brand, Eslite hopes to develop on the mainland and in Hong Kong. That's a very important goal for our future. The Hong Kong store was a key first step, as it was the first outside Taiwan."
In 2001, Eslite simplified its business by starting a logistics arm to co-ordinate orders and shipments from its 400 to 500 upstream sellers, he said. It also helps booksellers in four parts of the mainland with their logistics.
The company's Taiwan operations now earned "low" profits of 2-4 per cent, Lee said.
Eslite chose its site in Suzhou's business park, two hours from Shanghai, after the firm's leaders met representatives from Suzhou in Taiwan. Lee said the mall would acquire foreign books through a licensed importer, and domestic titles will be subject to vetting by mainland cultural censors.
The Suzhou property will cover the same floor area as the biggest store in Taipei, with 10,000 square metres for books. Eslite will add to its Suzhou mall an arts cinema plus space for exhibits and performances.
Whether people buy books, in the shops or online, has become less important as Eslite leans on revenue from other merchandise and services.
Customers in Taiwan, who make 120 million visits per year, say their peers across the strait should still brace for a literary experience.
"The key is still the Chinese book titles, and especially those in [traditional] characters, which express something about Taiwan's culture," said Pinki Huang, 48, a clothing store worker who visits Taipei's biggest Eslite shop at least once a month to look at magazines.
Eslite will compete with the state-run Xinhua bookshop chain on the mainland and Joint Publishing (HK) in Hong Kong. The Taiwanese chain's fusion of books, fashion and food should keep endearing it to younger clientele, said David Frazier, a Taipei-based arts and entertainment writer.
"Suddenly they had a venue that was bringing literature, art, design, and fashion together as a lifestyle package," Frazier said.
"The rise of Eslite bookstores over the past two decades is very much intertwined with the emergence of a cultural youth demographic in Taiwan, maybe so much that you can't really pull them apart."
Eslite is hardly finished growing in Taiwan. Next year it will open a 14-storey, 45,000 square metre bookshop mall in a 75-year-old Taipei tobacco factory that is being remade as a cultural centre.