The Legacy of Eslite Founder Robert Wu, The Future-Proof Lesson for the Chinese Retailing Industry

摘要: Robert Wu Ching-yu, founder of Taiwan’s famed Eslite Bookstore, died of heart failure on Tuesday night. What legacy has he left? What lesson can we learn from his business adventure?

(Chinese Version)

Robert Wu Ching-yu, founder of Taiwan’s famed Eslite Bookstore, died of heart failure on Tuesday night.

Known for his sincerity, persistence, professionalism and rigorousness, Wu continued to explore the possibility to turn from traditional bookstore model to “book plus retailing” for 28 years and managed to open Eslite’s chain bookstores in both Taiwan, Hong Kong but also mainland China. Today, Eslite has already grown into a cultural landmark for the Chinese-speaking world.

Eslite, more than a bookstore

“In fact, I didn’t establish Eslite to pursue commercial success at first,” Wu recalled.

Founded in 1989 in a basement, Eslite Bookstore was already quite different from traditional bookstores then.

At that time, only art and architecture books were sold at Eslite. Later, Wu decided to rent the first and second floor together with the ground floor. While the first floor was used as a restaurant, the second floor was used to sell other types of books, especially books of foreign languages and books introducing new thoughts on humanities.

Different from traditional bookstores that are always centered around bestsellers, Eslite opted for a new path: diversification. By selling a variety of  books, Eslite managed to attract a variety of readers and customers, which also laid the foundation for its transformation later.

When Eslite was established, it happened that Taiwan was amid great collisions of thoughts and ideas as new thoughts continued to pour in. In this case, Eslite appeared just in time to fill in the knowledge gap and meet people’s demand for knowledge.

Later, as the traditional book-selling industry foundered, Eslite began to shift its focus from books to other non-book products.

With a variety of books and non-book products, Eslite managed to accumulate a wide consumer group.  It was on this basis that Eslite continued to change and turned books and lifestyle products together as its focus. Gradually, third-party brands were played down at Eslite bookstores. Instead, Eslite’s own brand began to emerge.

While the idea of consumption upgrading and experience upgrading are so popular in the Chinese retailing circle right now, Eslite had been advocating such ideas many years ago.

For example, Eslite attached high importance to overall planning, space and scene design. Each new chain store was built to create a comfortable reading and shopping atmosphere, though with completely different design style and voice.

A case in point is the Product Search Machines, Cashiers and Service Counters set up all over Eslite bookstore, which can effectively distribute traffic in the bookstore.

Centered around the goal to “turn life into art”, Eslite gradually founded its own brands, as a variety of facilities, including film theaters, exhibition halls, stationary shops, vinyl record shops and even hotels, are established. These seemingly completely-different businesses, including books, restaurants, stationary, clothes, cultural activities and unique art works, constituted “Eslite’s life attitude” together, as a result.

As is known to all, it took Eslite 15 years to become profitable. It is not until 2004 that Eslite Bookstore managed to turn around and not until 2007 that it began to turn losses into gains, though accounting merely 30 per cent of Eslite Corp’s total revenue.

Fundamentally, Eslite is not simply a bookstore, not a stationary store, a coffee store, but all of them. As a matter of fact, it was registered as a General Merchandise Retailing business entity at Taiwan. For the past 28 years, it had never relied on e-commerce platforms.

Today, Eslite has already grown into a cultural brand.

Eslite Bookstore and Taiwan’s book-selling industry in its background

Knowledge should be at the core of every modern and civilized society. When most people in a society make a living, feel self-value, respect and freedom via knowledge and techniques, the entire society also relies heavily on knowledge and shall be designed and operated with knowledge at the core. In this background, bookstores become natural product and component of modern and civilized society.

Therefore, we shouldn’t talk about Eslite without taking into consideration of other bookstores in a city and their historical background as a whole.

As both internal and external environment changed and evolved, Taiwan’s economy boomed in the 1980s.

It is against this background that Kingstone Bookstore, the first large-scale bookstore chain in Taiwan, was founded. Featuring bright windows and clean tables, Kingstone Bookstore soon attracted Taiwan’s rising middle-class consumers. As Taiwan entered into an era of consumption binge, books teaching how to engage in financial management and achieve business success became super popular at that time, especially driven by Kingstone Bookstore. When people book back, such books have actually become a very symbol of that era. It is safe to say that Kingstone Bookstore was undoubtedly the dominant player in the Taiwanese cultural and publishing circle at that time.

By introducing a large number of books of foreign languages, Eslite not only added an international touch to the Taiwanese book-selling industry, but also affected the way of thinking of an entire generation of editors and publishers.

Chen Jianming, a translator of 84 Charing Cross Street, once worked at the Ancient Book Sector at Eslite Bookstore. This experience paved the way for his life-long interest in ancient books, publishing history in the East and West and nurtured his dream of translating and publishing books.

Indeed, Eslite Bookstore managed to transform the taste of the entire Taiwanese publishing industry unconsciously, as many publishing houses go beyond humanities and social science and shift their focus on lifestyle. As “lifestyle” became a keyword in the Taiwanese culture circle, Eslite opened new chain stores one after another, attracting an ever large consumer group. By 2000, it already caught up with Kingstone Bookstore.

In the 21st century, a batch of independent bookstores and second-hand bookstores emerged with strong emphasis on “independent attitudes”. One can easily seen the influence of Eslite in these new bookstores, whether in decoration style or book selection. However, faced with the growing influence of bookstore chains such as Eslite, they could find it increasingly hard to survive.

For sure, Eslite’s success has to do with the unique cultural atmosphere in Taiwan. Wu himself once said that Eslite was more like a collective work of an era.

The development path of offline bookstores in mainland China

When we look back at the bookstores in mainland China, we may also find the huge impact of the social and cultural background.

In the early 19990s, thanks to the sound economic development, a series of independent bookstores emerged in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, including All Sages Bookstore, Jifeng Bookstore, Borges Bookstore, Fenglinwan Bookstore, etc.

At the turn of the century, the book-selling industry in mainland China reached a climax. On the one hand, online bookstores such as dangdang.com and kongfz.com began to emerge; on the other hand, a number of large-scale book malls were established in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

In 2013, however, a large batch of offline bookstores were closed due to the huge challenge from online bookstores and e-commerce platforms, the decreasing margins of book-selling and the rising cost to maintain offline bookstores.

Since 2016, Chinese real economy rebounded. As a result, the Chinese offline book-selling industry recovered and a series of offline bookstores sprang up.

To a degree, it's like a pendulum. Although it might swing left sometimes, it will swing back after a while. Today, offline and online bookstores are no longer competing in a “zero-sum” game. Instead, they are more like companions.

Still, offline bookstores that survive the challenge must have something unique. For example, both SDX Joint Publishing Bookstore and Sisyphe Bookstore survived by adopting a business model very much similar to that of Eslite Bookstore: book plus retailing.

For the past two years, SDX Joint Publishing Bookstore has teamed up with ATOUR and opened many bookstore-like hotel rooms for rent. As a result, hotel guests and local residents can not only live in a room carefully decorated with book elements, but also read books in the room for free.

Sisyphe Bookstore, however, opted for the “cafe and stationary” model. As a result, Up Coffee and Bookart Life Hall have become necessary parts in every Sisyphe Bookstore.

Nevertheless, the era when offline bookstores can rely on book-selling has gone. While some offline bookstores are still looking for breakthrough, some online book-selling platforms are turning their eyes on offline bookstores. As offline bookstores founded based on the same business model continue to thrive in mainland Chinese cities, only those that provide high quality services can stand out.

After all, Eslite Bookstore has proved that there’s no use to be over-anxious. In fact, this rule applies also to other businesses. In nurturing a brand, the ultimate should be either to grab larger market share or to cultivate consumption habit. On the one hand, it isn’t likely to make profit in these stages; on the other hand, these stages often continue for a long period of time.

Driven by the ever-changing internet atmosphere, many entrepreneurs might mistakenly seek for profit at the early stage of their startups. Although such mentality might lead to solid revenue in the short time, the inconvenient truth is that it makes no sense in building up a brand.

In this sense, running an enterprise is just like reading a book. The secrets and potentials underneath are often endless.

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[The article is published and edited with authorization from the author @iyqkpd. Please note the source and hyperlink when reproduce.]       

Translated by Levin Feng (Senior Translator at PAGE TO PAGE), working for TMTpost. 

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