It was not the Christmas trading period anyone asked Santa for, but ‘it was what it was’. A trio of leading indie greeting card retailers – Cardies, Mooch and Cards & Gifts – revealed how they each approached the festive run-up, their respective experiences, top performing products as well as their hunches for 2021.
Jo Sorrell, owner of Cardies, Stevenage, Herts:
Verdict? “Phew! What a weird end to a weird trading year!”
How did it go? “Amazingly against all the odds we managed to keep Christmas on track and our December sales were on par with the previous year, even though we went into Tier 4 and I broke my hand on 20 December. While we weren’t able to open for the last and usually busiest few days leading up to Christmas, we were able to offer an ‘order and collection’ service for those last few days, but this brought in nothing like the usual sales we would have – notably we lost most male Christmas Eve shoppers.”
Your strategy? “While we were in November lockdown we did as much as we possibly could with orders, collections and local deliveries. We encouraged customers to either call us or direct message via Facebook or Instagram, which seemed to work quite well.
After coming out of November lockdown we were slightly worried that perhaps many of our customers might have done all of their Christmas shopping either online or in supermarkets. So, we really didn’t know what to expect. However, we were absolutely amazed and thrilled to find that so many had waited for our return. Planning for anything in 2020 just seemed quite futile so our key word was ‘adapting’ and as a last resort muddled through as best we could – which is probably how most people got through! We spent a lot more time posting as much information and products on social media as we could. This seemed to be very helpful for many and generated new interest and business. We decorated the railings outside of the shop into a Ponks’ (Jo’s many Labradors) winter wonderland with using upcycled greeting cards and calendars.”
Customer buying patterns? “It seemed to us that people were very keen to send Christmas cards this year. It seemed that perhaps more than ever people wished to stay connected in some physical way. Cards for their loved ones proved to be even more popular with many buying more captions than perhaps they normally would.”
Top performers? “Packs and boxes of cards sold well, especially charity packs. It certainly seemed people were sending more than usual. We stocked a small selection of cards from local artists as many customers were expressing that they wanted to support us as we were one of their local small businesses, so in turn we wanted to show our support for local too.
In humour, Rosie Made a Thing sold well as did Redback. Nigel Quiney’s traditional relations cards were popular, Woodmansterne’s Quentin Blake relations cards went down well while Wendy Jones-Blackett and Belly Button ranges were both popular in special captions and generally.”
Your hunch and approach for 2021? “I’m ever the optimist and believe that we will gradually be able to regain some normality. Once we do I think people are more eager than ever to use their local bricks and mortar businesses, as I believe many have realised just how much more important it is to use them or lose them. I would like to think they now appreciate all that an independent retailer has to offer…choice, service, individuality as well as knowledge and of course a good chat, putting the world to rights, and most importantly from us, a meet and greet from one of the Ponks. We have all our fingers and paws crossed for a brighter 2021.”
Jon May, co-owner of Mooch in Bewdley and Stourport-on- Severn:
How did it go? “Christmas for us was one of the best for both of our stores since we first opened our doors nearly six years ago. We were significantly up, fortunate to benefit from customers supporting local, not shopping in the larger cities but very much keeping it local in the smaller market towns.”
Your strategy? “For the first time we launched all our Christmas card ranges online before launching in our stores. We launched Christmas online on 25 September then in our stores on 31 October. When we went into lockdown in November our sales transferred from our physical stores to online with the platform almost going into meltdown with November becoming one of our busiest ever, even with both stores closed. We invested in two vintage snow scene TVs for our windows along with graphics featuring “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. We couldn’t believe the response from customers and people who had never noticed our stores before. It was good to see people of all ages actually stopping to watch the TVs and taking time to see what we were all about. We were delighted to be selected by BIRA as one of the top 10 Christmas Windows in its competition.”
Customer buying patterns? “Christmas card sales were very strong. We saw people were making a concentrated effort to send family and friends a card; to send their love as many would not physically see them.
Our pack sales were strong but our single card sales were up nearly 30% on 2019. While we found many people bought cards early, customers were still spending £20+ on Christmas cards on Christmas Eve.”
Top performers? “Among our top Christmas card performers were The Art File (singles and wallet pack collections), Louise Tiler (singles and packs), Rosie Made a Thing (packs) and Wendy Jones-Blackett (singles).”
Your hunch and approach for 2021? “So much of 2020 was hard work and unfortunately not fun with policing customers, social distancing, facemasks and sanitising. Hopefully this will be all behind us for Christmas 2021! My only worry is with the lack of trade shows hunting out new products and suppliers is going to be increasingly difficult in 2021!”
Carl Dunne, co-owner of Cards & Gifts, Sheffield and Dronfield:
Verdict? “Mixed. Having two shops was a blessing for us as our city centre store would normally be turning over £2k a day, but this was down to less than £500 while our new shop did amazingly well, boosted by offering other items and services, such as newspapers, magazines, Christmas flowers, wreaths and Christmas trees.”
How did it go? “Our city centre store was way down by about 75%, though having the second store (that traded incredibly strongly), we were able to move stock about and even then I had to contact most of our suppliers, especially UKG and Cherry Orchard, for more stock! “
Your strategy? “As soon as we received our Christmas stock we put it out and were encouraging people to buy in case the inevitable lockdowns happened again. We were proven right and saw a huge rush on Christmas products before Lockdown 2.0 kicked in. We had to close the city centre store though luckily our new shop was classed as essential as we’d started selling newspapers, milk, bread etc. after the newsagents next door closed in October.
Ollie (my partner) was also quick to act on hearing the drive time presenters on Heart Yorkshire radio saying that they weren’t bothering with Christmas cards this year and that Covid was the best excuse not to. Furious, he took to Twitter highlighting how Christmas cards are sold by many small independent retailers and produced by independent publishing companies. ‘Bit sad that you’re not supporting an industry that’s seriously affected by Covid.’ They then tried to back track: “We’re not saying don’t send them, just that we’ve not but both of us have done our best to stick to buying all of our Christmas presents from independents”. We all have to protect our industry.”
Customer buying patterns? “Glad to see there was the usual rush on Christmas Eve with men coming in trying to find any gift or card they could. One guy even asked to buy our umbrella stand, thinking it was something his wife would like!
People did seem to be buying more cards in one go this year with the average customer spending £30+ at a time. I found that people were willing to spend more on cards. Maybe because we’ve all been spending less on gifts, going out, celebrating etc. customers saw that they could afford to be a bit more frivolous and saw that the higher end cards really are worth their money. COVID seems to have brought out the best in a lot of people and therefore most were sending cards to those they may not have thought to in the past, feeling it was not only a kind gesture but the best way to show someone that they were in their thoughts.
I think the Attenborough effect was evident in how the suppliers used less glitter which customers either didn’t realise or were appreciative of cards that were more environmentally friendly. With the majority of cards ending up in the bin on January 5, talking to customers, recyclability is becoming ever more important. This was also reflected in a move towards plainer wrap and people focusing more on adornments such as twine, ribbon and bows.”
Top performers? “UK Greetings’ cards were the obvious best sellers for us, but as they arrived first and without any issues there’s no surprise. Nigel Quiney’s boxed cards did well as did Cherry Orchard’s Cherished range. Second Nature’s Champagne range did well, with there being very little in the way of returns.
On the non-card front, the light-up scenes from Konstsmide sold well (up 70%) and early. Many were bought as early gifts and not just as decorations.”
Your hunch and approach for 2021? “I am feeling cautiously optimistic. I’m sure our Dronfield shop will be fine and with any luck I’ll have the newsagents open next door within a few months. Our Sheffield city centre store, I don’t know. As long as it’s making £1 in profit then it’s worth staying open. Alas the only reason it’s doing that right now is because our landlord is reasonably understanding of the situation and allowing us to pay what we can afford in rent. But if proper trade doesn’t start to return to the city centres soon, who knows.
Concerning Christmas 2021 ordering, I’ll be dropping a large amount of the boxed cards as these aren’t quite as glitzy and glamorous as previous years. I’m looking at Noel Tatt for 2021 and I’m hopeful that the charity organisations, such as RNLI and the like will be better placed to provide stock to us next year.
I’m just looking forward to all of the hopes that the vaccine will get us back to the old normal instead of what people are now referencing as the ‘new normal’. Not to mention to have a holiday in the sun!”
Top: A Cardies’ style Happy New Year message!