Now, the heat has cooled somewhat, it is worth considering just what, if any, long-term influence the company may have on Hong Kong’s books culture and business. When Varsity paid a visit to the store early in the evening one weekday, enthusiasts like Queenie Wong were pretty much the exception rather than the rule. At 6 p.m., there were visitors on all three floors but not in the numbers that crowded the shop in August.
There were around 150 to 200 visitors, most of them young adults, office workers who had just got off from work and retirees. Around two thirds of them were walking around, while the other third were quietly reading books. Most people crowded around the bookshelves of the General Fiction and Travel sections.
Between 6:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., a total of 21 customers paid for items at the cashier’s counter, with most of them buying one to three books. Each one was eagerly invited to fill in a membership form.
One staff member told Varsity the peak hour was from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., when there could be more than twenty customers waiting in the queue. “Today is unusually quiet!” she said in a baffled tone.
Despite the excitement generated by Hong Kong’s first Eslite store and the hype in the media, Yan Wai-hin, a lecturer of the Department of Economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says the influence and potential impact of Eslite’s arrival is overstated. “Eslite is just a relatively bigger brand name in the Chinese community,” says Yan.
Yan says he believes the impact Eslite will have on conventional chain bookstores like Commercial Press and Joint Press will be limited. That is because in addition to selling books, these chains have their own publishing businesses, textbook retail services and the advantage of being widely accessible throughout Hong Kong.
It seems more than a coincidence that Commercial Press and Joint Press have sought to change their image and sales strategies in recent months. The moves they have made include major makeovers for branches on Hong Kong Island, longer opening hours, new membership promotions and the introduction of more cultural activities. Chung Hwa Book Company has even transformed its Mongkok branch into a comics theme store.
No matter what the reasons are behind these moves, they should bring fresh experiences for consumers. But there are responses that are out of reach for most independent bookstores.