One of my favourite store chains in Taiwan is bookstore retailer Eslite. Not only do they have an interesting and very appealing retail concept, but I’m also impressed by how carefully the company tailors its brand portfolio and store layout to the local neighbourhood.
The Eslite chain started out as a bookstore in 1989 with a small selection of titles from the arts and humanities. Since then it has become a majorly successful multi-channel business. In 2004 Eslite was chosen as “Asia’s Best Book Store” in Time Magazine’s Best of Asia ranking and in 2011 the company received the Top 100 Taiwanese Brand Award from the Taiwanese government.
Books and literature are still a key part of the Eslite portfolio but the company has diversified its focus to embrace the cultural and creative industries in Taiwan, too. In some of the larger Taipei Eslites you’ll find gourmet food courts and super-stylish cafés, hand-made Taiwanese art and design objects, lifestyle cosmetics, international avant-garde fashion and accessories and a very comprehensive selection of books and magazines – mostly in Chinese but the larger Eslites also carry a respectable number of English language books. Some of the outlets feature lecture halls and auditoriums and in these stores there is a varied program of concerts, exhibitions and other cultural events. And the newest Eslite in Songshan even has an arthouse movie theatre.
Not every Eslite store has the same size, of course; I visited seven different outlets here in Taipei and each store was different. Eslite operates some 50 stores in Taiwan, mostly in the bigger cities. In 2012 the retailer entered Hong Kong where there are currently two outlets. And in 2015 Eslite is planning to open its first stores in the mainland Chinese cities of Suzhou and Shanghai.
However, when I googled the matter I found several media reports from summer 2013 that stated that the Chinese government had ordered national media not to report on Eslite’s planned store openings. Probably because Eslite stores in Taiwan and Hong Kong carry books that are banned in mainland China. Or because Eslite is a proudly Taiwanese chain; presumably they would carry their focus on Taiwanese culture, art and design over to their mainland stores as well. And the relationship between China and Taiwan is, let us say, somewhat strained, with China very much trying to keep its cultural and political grip on Taiwan.
But to return to Eslite’s retail strategy! As far as I could make out (the company doesn’t have an English-language website so I had to work with Google Translate…!), Eslite stores are divided into different types. Eslite Spectrum stores have more of a mall concept; in addition to the usual books and magazines they also sell cosmetics, lifestyle goods, fashion and accessories, art and design and they usually have a food court area as well. Other Eslites are “just” book stores, usually with a café attached but mostly they sell books and stationery.
The Eslite in Shilin area, for example, is located close to several well-known universities. You see a lot of students around the area so this particular Eslite is one of the stationery/books focused outlets. There is also a branch of local café chain Lattea (try their Lattea beverage – cold jasmine tea served with sweet condensed milk on top. Delicious!)
The Eslite in hip and bustling Ximen area, on the other hand, attracts primarily young and/or teenage visitors. It is also a Spectrum store so there is a strong focus on more trend-oriented lifestyle and fashion labels and they have a comprehensive cosmetics department on the ground floor, with stylish beauty brands like Benefit, Anna Sui or Burt’s Bees from the US or Too Cool for School from Korea.
The Xinyi outlet was opened in 2006. With a retail space of 8,000 sq m it is the largest Eslite in Taipei and also Taiwan’s largest book store. Xinyi is the administrative and business center of Taipei and over the last years several luxury shopping malls and department stores have been opened in the immediate neighbourhood. The Xinyi area is also visited by many Asian and Western tourists since the famous Taipei 101 building, the Taipei World Trade Center and the International Exhibition Centre are all located here.
Accordingly the Xinyi Eslite Spectrum features international premium fashion, a particularly comprehensive selection of Taiwanese foods, teas, sweets and gifts as well as high-end electronics labels and Taiwanese art and design. You wouldn’t find mainstream beauty in this Eslite, instead there are TCM-oriented Taiwanese brands and international niche organic labels. All of this in addition to a stupendous range of books and magazines, a lecture hall and several cafés. Oh yes, and a stunning interior design by Taiwanese architect Chen Rui Xian which is almost worth a visit by itself.
The outlet in Dunhua, which was also the first Eslite ever, is open 24 hours and has a great selection of books, magazines and media. However, my favorite Eslite is the newest outlet which is located in Japanese architect Toyo Ito’s shopping mall in Songshan Cultural & Creative Park. The Songshan store is spectacular, with a particularly strong focus on culture and art – not surprising considering that is located on the grounds of the Cultural Park (see my article on Songshan Cultural & Creative Park here).
In the basement there is a gourmet food court with a branch of the most excellent Wu Pao Chun bakery and an arthouse cinema which focuses on Taiwanese and indie movies. The Songshan Eslite also has an unrivalled selection of Taiwanese and local arts and crafts, as well as the so-called Living Project area on the second floor. Living Project is aiming to draw visitors into the creative process: there is a glassed-in area where you can observe a glass-blower and workshops which will let you try out leatherwork, painting or embroidery. The third floor places the emphasis on tea and foods – here you’ll find several tea specialist stores as well as gourmet foods and sweets from Taiwan.
Incidentally, what I like about the big Eslite Spectrum stores is that unlike classic European department stores (where you typically have food in the basement, beauty and accessories on the ground floor, women’s fashion’s on the second, men’s and children’s fashion on the third on so on) Eslite mixes up its product categories.
Although each store level has one main theme, it also features various product sectors. Local designer brands are present on each floor but in different contexts – near the book store area (which on this floor focuses on, say, arts and humanities) there might be hand-made greeting cards and paper as well as the handbags of a Taiwanese accessories label; directly followed by a selection of gourmet foods and teas, children’s clothing and a café section.
One floor further up the book shelves might concentrate on sciences and geography but are interspersed with shop areas featuring, say, premium travel accessories and travel bags; right next to this section might a counter with natural cosmetics made in Taiwan, followed by an area focusing on headphones and loudspeakers….the brand mixture keeps things interesting and lures the customer into spending a lot more time (and money) on each floor.
In the very large Eslites, especially the outlets in Songshan and Xinyi, you can spend hours just walking around the store, looking, tasting and trying out new things. The Songshan Eslite is particularly beautiful and a must-visit if you are even remotely interested in Taiwanese arts, crafts and culture. Although there are, of course, international brands in each product category, the main focus of Eslite lies on promoting local culture, art and design which makes them excellent places to pick up unusual and unique souvenirs.