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Christmas 2020 is shaping up to be the worst ever for UK booksellers though publishers will be heartened by strong figures for print earlier in the month. At midnight on Saturday 19 December, London and the South East, and the whole of Wales, were put into Tier 4, the UK government’s strictest Covid-19 restrictions which sees the closure of all non-essential retail. It follows the discovery of a new variant of the virus which is spreading fast in the capital and across the south east. The new restrictions have seen the closure of hundreds of bookshops, with the only physical shops selling books being a small number of WH Smith stores and a handful of supermarkets, both of which have limited ranges.
Yet the figures for print for earlier in December, after the earlier lockdown was lifted, are very strong, up 15% in volume on the previous year. However, it maybe that Amazon has grabbed a large part of this increase.
The week before Christmas is the most important week for physical bookshops. It is estimated that the Tier 4 closures could see bookshops lose £100m in sales. There will be a knock-on affect to publishers too: come January bookshops will be left with stock that they have failed to sell and they will want to return it to publishers. Difficult conversations lie ahead.
Commenting on the new restrictions, Meryl Hall, CEO of the UK Booksellers Association, said: “While we understand that public health must be a priority, and the new Covid strain is a big concern, the announcement of further, no-notice, lockdowns in London and the south-east and in Wales, with more non-essential retail closures to come in Scotland and Northern Ireland, is desperately disappointing and frustrating. Booksellers have absorbed every wave that’s hit them this year, and bookshops across the country were starting to make up lost ground after months of disruption – and really enjoying being back to what they do best, which is obviously selling books to hungry book-buyers. It’s heart-breaking to see the energy – which booksellers dig deep for every time the regulations are changed again – having to once more be spent to reinvent the shape of their shops and how to continue selling.”
Kate Skipper, chief operating officer of Waterstones, said: “News of the move to Tier 4 in London and areas of the south-east and a new lockdown in Wales is extremely disappointing. To have to close many of our shops, once again, and during the last crucial days before Christmas will have a significant impact on trade.”