“I love greeting cards, I absolutely adore them,” Olly Tress, owner of the lifestyle retail group Oliver Bonas confessed at the start of a quirky, honest and insightful keynote speech at the recent GCA Centenary AGM and Conference.
Paying tribute to greeting card publishers, the respected retailer said how “it is an incredible skill to be able to sensitively capture a relationship in words and pictures or maybe even just a graphic in a card. Thank you for being so brilliant.”
While Olly acknowledged that while “retail has been up in the air,” including for Oliver Bonas, card sales are more than holding there own.
“Our card sales are up 11% like-for-like which for a mature category is impressive,” revealed Olly. “We have sold 1.5 million greeting cards in the last year, so we are happy!”
Olly shared the retailer’s top selling card design of the last 18 months. Giving it the big build-up he prefaced its showing by saying that it was a “mixture of philosophy, psychology and great sentiment” before revealing a print out of the Lucy Maggie Designs card, a simple graphic with a message ‘Shake your tits, it’s your birthday’.
“Well done to Lucy Maggie for digging deep into the human psyche!” quipped Olly.
Providing inspiration to the many entrepreneurs in the room, Olly recounted the company’s humble beginnings from a small shop in Parsons Green in London, selling handbags that Olly had imported from Hong Kong, kitting out the shop with secondhand equipment.
“I knew absolutely nothing,” confessed Olly, whose nervousness on the first Saturday when the shop opened turned to euphoria when he counted up that it had taken £1,100 in sales. “I remember thinking, thank goodness, I have a future!”
He relayed how things really started to improve once he heard about trade shows. “Someone said to me: “Are you going to Birmingham?” to which I replied “I hadn’t intended to, why Birmingham?” They then explained that the major trade show took place there, to which I replied: ‘What is a trade show?’. I immediately liked the idea of them; places you go to buy things!” confessed Olly.
Olly says that the eclectic mix of Oliver Bonas was sparked by his own “magpie personality”, but admits that the retailer’s selection is far stronger these days now he has a team of buyers.
In the early days Olly would meet with London card agents, including Niall Robson and Fiona Lychenhan and he would make his own selection and decide on the quantities. “They would tell me that I had not ordered the best sellers, but I thought I knew what would sell. I was a total pain in the neck and of course learned to listen to them!”
In the ensuing 26 years, the Oliver Bonas has grown to trade from 80 stores as well as an impressive online presence, with its first ‘overseas’ store due to open in Dublin.
As to the ‘purpose’ of the business, Olly said its remit is crystalised in part of the quote from Hans Christian Andersen: “Just living is not enough…one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.”
To his mind, you do not have to be biggest or everything to everyone, but aim to be the ‘little flower’ translating this into its company motto of ‘Work hard, play hard and be kind’.
Top: Olly Tress, founder of Oliver Bonas speaking at the recent GCA AGM and Conference, with the retailer’s top selling card design by Lucy Maggie Designs.