Talking Topic: Staying Successful As An Independent Retailer

Edinburgh is the city I went to school in so is close to my heart.

A favourite shopping area is Stafford Street, and a great store for cards and gifts is Paper Tiger managed by Michael Apter. Paper Tiger celebrates 40 this year!

Michael kindly agreed to have a business chat with me. I am calling it a “Talking Topic”.

 

I led with, how have you kept your independent going, Paper Tiger, during the pandemic year? 

Michael, was honest that as a city shop dependent on both office workers and tourists that “it had been brutal”, with a severe hit on turnover and profitability. He feels, realistically, that it will be a slow journey back to the pre-pandemic figures. As yet it is not clear what the future of city life will look like to inform the longer term impact.  Big city experiences are hamstrung by a lack of spontaneity – for example, families need to book to go to a museum making it easier to take a country walk or a ride to the beach. He notes that his customers are de-camping to pretty places! However despite this, he got through it all, because of:

  • Great staff.
  • The amazing support of loyal, local customers who wanted Paper Tiger to succeed. Some of them wrote lovely messages to their family and friends on gifts which showed quite how much the customers missed their family and friends. Many bought cards to acknowledge missed celebrations of birthdays, successes and weddings.
  • The investment in the Paper Tiger online site since 2018 sustained the business with massive growth.
  • A very busy Christmas in December 2020, during which Paper Tiger sold more Christmas cards than ever before!
  • The government furlough scheme helped when the stores were closed. And some support from grants, which helped especially during the first lockdown.

 

Whilst rather overshadowed by the arrival of Covid-19, we tend to forget that Brexit used be the main topic of business chatter. I asked what impact Brexit had made in reality to Paper Tiger.

It has been hard to unpick BREXIT from the pandemic as all the buying has been compromised and de-risked due to Covid.

Michael made the decision to turn off any public international orders to the EU as the resulting processes are complex relative to th small value orders.

Michael had placed orders for new stock in Paris in January 2020 at Maison Objet just before the pandemic and some of the deliveries became a “horror show” due to issues of tracking the parcels via couriers and the necessary duties to be paid. Not all European suppliers have been sympathetic to British retailers as they have enough business on the mainland to bother with fiddly UK matters. Largely Michael is focusing on stock from local Scottish suppliers and UK suppliers, but knows that this will dilute his differentiation without sourcing further flung product.

I asked how important sustainability is to Michael and Paper Tiger

Sustainstablity is a core belief to Michael. He already offsets his business travel by planting trees in the Scottish Highlands, via Trees for Life. In addition he is consciously sourcing product closer to home, some made in Edinburgh and majority made within Scotland. He is aiming at a carbon neutral website whereby the electricity generated by the customer-hits on the website are offset.

In buying terms, Michael’s check list includes: what is the purpose of this product. “I don’t want an eco-shop but I wish to uphold sustainable values; I want to avoid an uninteresting shop”. However both he and his shoppers want to do the right thing;  they want product with purpose. “The days of pointless junk is gone – plastic products in plastic blister packs will disappear”, but “fun” is still necessary and can be done sustainably.

What is the future of trade shows?

For Michael, trade shows offer a helpful way to compare and contrast different vendors; to pick up trends and see the colour palettes emerging. They are a way to “get your hand on the product and put your heart on it”. It is much easier to judge scale in the flesh relative to a PDF. However in the absence of such events, Michael has turned to existing suppliers, using newsletters, PDFs and samples to stay in touch with product newness. The Scottish reps have been great too, for example, the local Talking Tables rep, Lucy Sharp, has developed a pop up show room to help retailers make shorter journeys to see product in person.

Michael feels that given that we all wish to make fewer trips, the industry would do well to merge and collaborate amongst some trade so that a trip to London, for example, combines a couple of small shows making the investment in time more worthwhile. He particularly values the Top Drawer shows as feels the majority of his suppliers have migrated to these within the UK.  Some other shows feel like “just the same stuff with a lick of paint”. However the European shows offer a way to offer points of differentiation and prevent identikit retailers.

 

I enjoy reading Michael’s hand penned newsletters, so I asked him about these electronic missives.

He confessed that some weeks creating the content is easier than others, sometimes even cathartic, but the feedback from customers (and incremental revenue) have encouraged him, as well as the growing list of subscribers and higher than industry average open rates. He wrote the content himself in lockdown in absence of anyone else, giving it an authentic tone of voice, aiming to keep the content topical and local. He taught himself how to improve his newsletters through better scheduling etc; and can now recycle the content into blogs and social media. As an important sales and branding tool, he sees the e-newsletters continuing as “me with help”.

- Clare Harris



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