Indies Stationers Talk Shop

Among the highlights of the recent London Stationery Show was a lively panel discussion among a bunch of indies about their industry loves, customer laughs and their stationery item alter egos.

Sarah Laker, of Stationery Supplies in Marple and Wilmslow; Sandra Jervis from Creative Cove in Lampeter; Ray Williams of JPS in Chesham; Sally Stephenson of The Pencil Case in Cowbridge; and David Worsfold from Farrants in Cobham shared the thrills and spills of life as an independent stationery retailer.

As an indie, what’s your USP that the multiples and online can’t match?

Sally: My shop is very aimed at the school age market, particularly four to 11-year-olds, and anyone who’s got children that age knows how many millions of birthday parties you go to on a weekly basis. So, we’ve created a fabulous range of children’s stationery that you can’t really find in the nationals. When our customers come to us, they are asking for advice. “Oh, what can I buy for a seven-year-old girl?” So we recommend loads of brilliant things that we know will work. We gift wrap what they choose, the kids write their cards sat at the counter and then they’re good to go. Often they go straight from our shop to the party.

Sandra: For me the USP is that we all bring our own personal self to our shops and expose ourselves to our customers – but not like that! People buy into you. You don’t buy into Sainsbury’s, you don’t buy into the big brands. But with independent retailers, it is you they are buying, it’s you they’re coming back for. You create that narrative. And that’s what makes the connection.

David: Everybody’s going to say the personal touch, one-to-one and rest of it. Quick anecdote. Local cycle shop, chap goes in, wants to buy some expensive cycle shows, chap goes off into a corner with the price, looks on the internet comes back to the retailer and says “can you match the price?” So the retailer replied: “OK I’ll match it.” He takes the payment, puts the shows on the counter, and as the customer goes to pick them up, the retailer takes them away saying: “No, you can have them tomorrow, like if you had ordered them online!”

How is your shop part of the local community?

Sarah: During the first lockdown, we all came back to work and the world was mad. I had a little old man come in the shop who’s shopped with me for years. Never really says a lot to me. Just hello, goodbye, thank you and off he goes. He came back in after we reopened and as he was leaving, there was a box of chocolates in the counter. And I said “you’ve forgotten your chocolates.” And he said to me, “no, they’re for you, I’ve missed you so much.” He went out of the shop and I burst into tears. It was such an emotional time anyway, but to think that the man who never said much to me at all, felt that strongly about missing my shop just shows what a part of the community we are.”

Sally: Half of my business is actually school uniform for the 11 schools in the town and the other hald is stationery in that same market so we’re literally plugged into everybody who’s got children in the local area. We do the raffle prizes, the PTA support, we sponsor the local cricket club and the local hockey club. Every Easter and Halloween I organise a hunt around the town. I get all the other independent retailers in our High Street together, there’s about 20 of us, and the kids all come to me at 9am, pick up their maps and then off they go around the town, taking their parents and grandparents into all the other independent retailers on the high street for a couple of hours to find all the clues we’re hidden. They come back to me at the end to get a prize. It’s brilliant, there’s a great atmosphere on the High Street and all the independents really benefit from getting all these families through.

David: Being on the High Street it means that you’re sorted blended into the fabric of the town, just by default, And plus, we’re not just the local newsagents we are the local news desk. If you want to know what’s going on in Cobham, everybody comes into the shop.

Ray: I stock a range of cards by local artists and books as well that are published by local authors – there’s connections there with local people. And we have produced the Chesham calendar for about 15 years now, giving the profit to local charities.

Suppliers and independents are in a marriage, what can make this marriage happier?

David: Probably like my marriage – don’t text me, don’t email me. I’d rather see you in person – and we’re still going strong after 42 years!

Ray: Well, we’ve all enjoyed our time here, the suppliers telling use their stories, showing us the products they’ve got. If more of our suppliers actually came to these events and showed us the products they’ve got, we would see them and we might want to stock them. But, if they’re just sending out emails or bits of paper in the post, we’re never going to really engage are we?

Sandra: Something that could improve the relationship with my suppliers would be them offering samples that I can use to sell their products… a notebook that customers can look at and write in, rather than me having to break open the notebooks that I’ve paid for and bought to sell.

Sally: Suppliers should stop undermining the independents by doing deals with the nationals. Legami erasable pens is a case in point. We’re all doing really well with them, everybody’s benefitting from that brand and then, to see a big national doing a discount on them! You don’t need to offer a discount on Legami erasable pens. So don’t undermine us just because it suits you to do a short-term deal with a national chain.

Above: Ray Williams  loves his Pentel Wren pencil
Above: Ray Williams  loves his Pentel Wren pencil

What’s your favourite stationery product?

Sarah: My Leuchtturm diary and Drehgriffel pen. I can’t get anything done without a diary – paper and pen is the way forward. And notebooks, I must have four or five on the go at any one time.

Sandra: My favourite is my Kaweco fountain pen. I bought it for the shop and was so upset that is sold that I had to go and buy another one and it has been with me ever since.

Ray: My little Pentel Wren’s pencil which you click once and it keeps writing and writing. It’s got a clever mechanism that means you don’t need to keep re-clicking.

Sally: Mine is my Perfect Planner diary. This is the third year I’ve been using these planners and it has absolutely revolutionised how I run the business, how I manage my time and I will set my goals and review them each month. It’s a fabulous product.

David: My personal favourite is the one that makes me the most money, which happens to be the Legami erasable pens. They came from left field and now are one of my best sellers.

Above: David Worsfold said Legami erasable pens are one of his best sellers.
Above: David Worsfold said Legami erasable pens are one of his best sellers.

What would be your stationery alter ego?

Sarah: I’m going to go with a paperclip because I like connecting people, whether it be my customers or the industry, I like to hold things together.

Sally: My shop is called The Pencil Case and it contains load of fabulous stationery so I’ve got to be a pencil case.

Ray: I should be the staple of Chesham as I’ve been there for 28 years.

Sandra: I’ve decided that I’m going to be a Positive Planner because I’m a little ray of sunshine.

This feature first appeared in the May issue of Progressive Greetings magazine.


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