Retail Opinion: The Hokey Cokey Lockdown

Independent retailer (and PG columnist) David Robertson, managing director of the JP Pozzi/Bijou retail group in Scotland’s Elgin and Buckie shares his views on what is needed to get through this lockdown period:

‘This current situation reminds me of the Hokey Cokey, that group dance that was a feature at many wedding events (remember them?!). Instead of putting ‘your right leg in’, now in our fluctuating lockdown scenarios it is more a case of… ‘You’re in, you’re out, we don’t know what this is all about…’ We’re certainly being ‘shaken all about’.

I am writing this after the first few days of Lockdown 2 have been ticked off for my friends South of the border.

Non-essential retail, which covers most of our industry, being forced to close leaves Click & Collect, local delivery, website, social media as the main ways specialist card shops in England can continue to sell.

With no specialist card shops allowed to trade, there are the triple threats of supermarkets, garden centres and the internet – all well positioned to hoover up purchases of cards, rollwrap and gifts.

While we all understand supermarkets are needed – and we saw the mess that occurred when Wales tried to protect certain sectors with greeting cards being reinstated as ‘essential’, it is understandably irksome that other types of retailers such as garden centres have been given the go ahead to carry on trading. How many tulip bulbs does anyone really need to buy?!

This is the time of year that we are usually on the home straight. Stock is in, displays are done and we are gearing up for a strong 6-8 weeks of trading.

If we are totally honest, these are often the profit weeks in our year and normally the most exciting time.

Indies will have usually picked a theme for their Christmas and have tuned into the gifts and trends that the public are searching for. These skills have been honed to allow us to compete with the big boys who are all selling versions of the same.

Above: The festive season is in full glory in the JP Pozzi/Bijou shops.
Above: The festive season is in full glory in the JP Pozzi/Bijou shops.

We will be full of different, quirky, gift ideas that dovetail with the cornerstone of a great card selection. It maybe Tiger King jigsaws or soft toy toilet roll characters or a scarf made from recycled bottles. Whatever it is these will add to the card sales and build our turnover and bottom line.

As always, indie retailers will have tailored their card mix towards their core customer. All good card retailers I know can almost imagine certain customers buying certain cards and this is why we survive; because we know and service these very people.

Above: David Robertson was amused by the inventiveness of Jomanda with its plush toilet roll characters.
Above: David Robertson was amused by the inventiveness of Jomanda with its plush toilet roll characters.

I know that this year I was excited about our mix. We had introduced new players to it, increased our box selection and loved so many of the product, such as Tracks Charity collection or the Caroline Gardiner bagged cards for Meningitis Now.

Both the choice and selection from small publishers right through to the larger more traditional card players has been excellent and with distance, restrictions, travel bans and everything else a Christmas card this year will be seen as a lifeline of communication more than any other.

Seeing that card, reading that message, clinging to the personal interaction between people will take on an added significance in a year when family gatherings, friends meeting up have become fractured at best.

Above: The Caroline Gardner Christmas cards in their eco-pouch.
Above: The Caroline Gardner Christmas cards in their eco-pouch.

With this being the case, it was so good to see the GCA, along with multiples (Cards Galore, Cardzone, Card Factory and Scribbler), Cardgains, indies and publishers putting pressure on the government to reclassify card shops as essential.

I agree with this of course and I want this campaign to succeed, but accept there are issues.

Everyone wants to be the special case, whether it a sport or a retailer, we can all argue passionately for our ‘thing’.

Swimmers can say the chlorine environment kills the virus, but what about all you touch before you get into the pool?

Florists will argue that they send a message through flowers to bring cheer and the toy shops will argue that their products entertain children.

I also have to wonder if card shops being allowed to open actually will do any good as the footfall will simply not be there. So even if we as a sector would be allowed to open, who would come to the shops?

Above: Abrams and Chronicle’s Tiger King jigsaw.
Above: Abrams and Chronicle’s Tiger King jigsaw.

If the GCA-driven ‘Card Shops are Essential’ campaign is successful and card shops were deemed ‘essential’ and as such be allowed to open, with a second full lockdown in Scotland our Elgin store would be the only shop open other than a butcher and post office in our street of over 30 businesses. Would this be right or make any sense?

I have to confess at this point that being located in Scotland I can open all my stores at present and in truth the days have not been that different for us in the North East of Scotland than to those in October.

Even if we (Scotland) too are forced into a similar lockdown I would be able to open at least one of my stores as we sell newspapers – so, while hampered I can still trade.

I do feel for those indies in England that don’t have the access to the tech to trade through social media and the web. It must be scary to think that your customers may go elsewhere.

As dedicated card retailers we have to remember we have our hardcore audience who are keen to stay loyal and buy from us. We just have to hope that they will find a way to keep that going. They may wait until the shops can re-open or make contact to buy direct or online.

I think that as a sector we have a tribal calling more than ever and are fellow members of our ‘tribe’ will support us. We have to believe that.

Today I tapped the words ‘greeting cards’ into Ebay and Google and top of the searches and on that first page were not the ones you would expect. While the handmade product from Smythson was lovely I don’t think it would appeal to many price wise. Equally, and at the other end of the spectrum the 12 cards for £2.49 on Ebay were exactly what you would expect them to be at that price…will let you fill that in for yourself.

We, as indies, should not be overly worried about those who buy cards just from wherever they are or whatever they search. We don’t appeal to that customer really.

We have to remember that we are specialists; we offer choice and knowledge not just a bit of folded paper. Please remember that.

That customer who will buy from a messed up cardboard stand in a supermarket or from a site that pops up on their social media is not really our customer.

We want/covet the customer who reads the words, who wants ‘mum and her partner’ as the caption or is seeking out ‘your first Christmas in your new home’ wording.

In truth, the selection of these titles and many others has never been better and I urge you to make sure you have them because this year of all years will see people wanting to mark Christmas with an acknowledgement of some kind. Even if it means them waiting a bit until they can buy them from their favourite specialist.

Indie retailers are nimble, swift and innovative. We are able to roll with the punches and find solutions to even the toughest puzzles.  By saying this I know that up and down the UK we are finding ways to service our customers and will no doubt count down the days until December 2 like some kind of early advent calendar.

The 2nd of December can’t come quickly enough, and are fingers are crossed that this date really will stick as when English stores can reopen. Wales should open up next week, Ireland have more to go. Meanwhile here in Scotland we are praying that we can trade right through to Christmas Eve. Now that would be a Christmas Miracle – not on 34th Street, but on every high street in every town from Gretna to Galashiels.

I am lucky that right now where we are based is in the lowest possible level of Tier 1 and some restrictions have even been eased, but in reality this almost feels worse. I find myself consuming huge amounts of news, radio shows, printed word worrying about us being closed down at any time. What if we suddenly find ourselves in lockdown in December?

Above: One of the Christmas card displays in David’s shops which are full of special captions.
Above: One of the Christmas card displays in David’s shops which are full of special captions.

My cashflow is planned. I am committed and no matter how nimble I am we can’t possibly make up for the spend we always have in our physical stores at this time of year.

Verbalising commitment is the watch word. I am committed to my suppliers, committed to my customers and also to my business, but if we can’t trade how to we make these financial commitments? How do we pay the bills?

Darwin said: “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

Well in this year of 2020 ‘changes’ and ‘challenges’ are two ‘C words’ that can sum it up pretty well, with the third being ‘crap’!

Christmas, another C word, is just around the corner and it is of course the season that we all rely on more than any other.

But will three weeks be enough time for people to get back out, build their confidence, sort and buy their shopping – all socially distanced, of course. Can we cope with what will be a mad dash to complete the Christmas shopping? I simply don’t know the answers.

I am sure we will see shops extending their opening hours, creating separate till points and find many, many ways to service and help their customers to feel safe and to find what they need.

Of paramount importance is keeping people at home to stop the spread of the virus. It is about avoiding the confusion of local lockdowns, tiers and a series of rules that had become so confusing and mixed that we needed to go back to the simple message of Stay Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives.

However, I also know is that our stockrooms are bursting with great products and our shops are more than ready for Christmas.

My message to all card retailers (and publishers supplying them) is a simple one – do what you can, don’t be too hard on yourself and believe in what you have built.

If you overthink this too much then it may become as confusing as the American election and by God none of us want that.

We can and we will make the UK card industry great again…again!

“Knees bent, arms stretched, ra ra ra.”

Top: David Robertson, managing director of JP Pozzi.

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