Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention and this certainly seems to have been the case for the group of independent greeting card retailers who gathered for the first ever Indie Retailers’ PG Buzz Zoom Meet-up (staged last Friday) to share their respective approaches to retailing during lockdown as well as well as how they are preparing for ‘new normal’.
Hosted by PG Buzz.net, and attended by Amanda Fergusson, ceo of the GCA, independent card retailers Anne Barber of Heaven at Home (Market Harborough); Jo Barber of Number 14 (Ampthill); Tracey and Chris Bryant of Expressions, Cats Whiskers and Polkadot (Swindon, Bishops Cleeve and Keynsham); Carl Dunne and Oliver Guise-Smith of Cards and Gifts (Sheffield); Tabi Marsh of Papilio at Heritage (Thornbury); Sally Matson of Red Card (Petworth); Andrea Pinder of Presentation (Barrowford); Mark Rees of Penmark (10 shops in the Midlands) and David Robertson of JP Pozzi/Bijou (Elgin and Buckie) all demonstrated how, while the situation is not easy right now, how, driven by their passion for their business they are drawing on their entrepreneurial talents and warm-hearted engagement with their customers to ensure they will be there when we come out the other side of this.
From offering a calligraphy card writing service (Heaven at Home), posting ‘wellness Wednesday tips’ on social media (Papilio at Heritage); leaving handmade cakes on customers’ doorsteps (Presentation) to offering virtual shopping and home delivery services (Cards & Gifts, JP Pozzi, Number 14 and Presentation), investing in their website presence (Cats Whiskers, JP Pozzi, Number 14, Cards & Gifts), this plucky bunch of indies have shown their mettle.
“On the first day of lockdown, I admit I just cried, wailing to Ollie, “just what am I going to do, I have never not worked”,” confessed Carl Dunne of Cards & Gifts (Sheffield). For Carl and the others though it’s been ‘work’ but not at they knew it.
“I have not stopped,” says Jo Barber. “Having furloughed all my staff I now have no one to delegate to. While I will always be a champion of bricks and mortar, I have set up a website. Something that I have been meaning to do for nine years, I have completed in a fortnight!”
It must be something in the name as Anne Barber says she too has “never been busier” and has also brushed up on her calligraphy talents. “I was when I was in the shop selecting the cards that I would need for my own use for the month that I hit upon the idea of offering a service to customers whereby I post images of cards on Facebook and customers contact me with their card needs, I send them images of designs for that occasion by What’s App and then I can write their message using my calligraphy pens and inks. I have posted hundreds of cards out,” explained Anne.
Andrea Pinder’s virtual personal shopping service, that she promotes on Facebook has proven popular to her customers. “I go into the shop every day so those passing by can see the lights are on and know I am there. I change the window regularly to pique the interest of those walking or driving past. And as I know which of our customers cannot get out, I might leave a homemade cake or scones on their doorstep. It is all about being there for your customers and reminding them that we will be there when this is all over.”
The positive feedback from customers has been such as tonic all willing them to re-open.
“It makes you realise that we don’t just sell shit – we are part of our customers’ lives” summed up Sally in her upbeat twang.
“That’s the quote of this meet-up!” exclaimed David. “You’re so right.”
One area where there does seem to be room for improvement is in suppliers’ communication with indies. While there are notable exceptions, Laura Sherratt and Tracey Russell were held up as having been exemplary, sending cards to wish the retailers well, as Mark Rees said: “I have been so amazed by the lack of communication by the vast majority of suppliers. We are in the card trade for goodness sake!”
With all bar David and Jo Barber having received their grants from the Government, this has freed up cash to pay suppliers.
As Sally says though: “while the grants enable us to pay for the stock we have received my concern for suppliers is for the orders we have all put on hold as we remain shut. The sooner things can get going again the better for all of us.”
With noises now being made about a softening of the lockdown, thoughts are turning as to practicalities and financial sense of indie card shops re-opening.
“There is likely to be a period when, while we will be allowed to re-open, it will not be viable. I hope the talks of an extended period of transitional furloughing come through as this would allow Government support to taper off as retailers and consumers adjusted to the new normal,” suggests Mark.
While David assured others how the screens he has installed in his newsagent are working well both sides of the counter (see separate story on this PG Buzz), Tracey and Chris are already well underway considering the safety issues in their stores, sourcing masks, santisers and gloves. “It will definitely be a cautious return for both retailers and consumers,” suggests Tracey. “Some of those who have used the internet to buy their cards may stick with it, but I feel by offering a click and collect service may a good way of luring them back to the shop,” adds Chris.
For all the challenges this lockdown period has brought, all agreed that good things will come out of it.
“I have to be clinically insane, but it has given me the gumption to go for it – and we have just signed contract to open a second shop!” revealed Carl.
Jo feels that “human kindness” is at an all time high that is something that will continue, while Mark says “it has given us all a great opportunity to think about our businesses and our lives, and realise that simplifying things can improve it.”
David feels that there could well be a return to “old values” where things that may have been taken forgranted, like the service from an independent retailer will be appreciated again.
As Andrea summed up: “Normality won’t happen for a long while, but a nation of kinder human beings with a greater tolerance” should bode well for the greeting card sector as well as the UK as a whole.