07 April, 2010
By John Ryan - Retail week
For those who haven’t been watching out for such things, greetings card retailer Scribbler might appear to have sprung up fully-formed over the last couple of years, trading predominantly in London with a few provincial outposts in places such as Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge.
It has in fact been around since 1981, when the first store opened, and today there are 17 branches with this one, in the Kensington Shopping Mall, just off Ken High Street, being fairly typical.
It is small, almost half-pint-sized, although this is large by Scribbler standards with the near-kiosk-sized outlets in Covent Garden and London Victoria being more typical. Like those, it is uncompromising in its dogged concentration on stocking a broad range of greetings cards, rather than diversifying into related gift areas. This is probably a reflection of the store’s footprint – start putting soft toys et al into an environment of this kind and you will have filled the space before a single card hits the racks.
And by concentrating on cards, with a small selection of wrapping papers, there is also a very apparent focus on the category and on an environment that would appeal, in the first instance, to the young and distinctly irreverent. This is not a store for the timid, as bawdy message cards abound and if it’s an ‘I love my Mum’ card that is sought, they are on offer, but not in the same quantity as might be apparent in, say, a branch of Clintons. Look at the website and there’s even a sub-category called “rude” birthday cards.
There is also a rough-and-ready approach to both store design and merchandising that will appeal to the make-do-and-mend set. Stand outside this store and, like all the others it has a bright, Kermit-green fascia with an off-white lower case logo. The entrance is narrow enough not to merit window displays and instead you can see deep into the interior, where there are shiny, semi-industrial looking shelves of cards around the perimeter and in the centre-shop.
To the right, there’s a cash desk and, er, that’s about it. The whole of the interior is brightly lit, with white-washed walls providing the backdrop for the ranges, while graphics denoting the occasion a card is intended for, positioned at eye level around the perimeter, assist in-store navigation and finding what you want quickly and easily. This is a drop in and don’t linger format, aimed at helping shoppers get what they need and then get on with whatever else it is they need to get on with.
And it really is an extraordinarily simple piece of store design – the retail equivalent of a piece of agitprop - quick and dirty. Unlike most card retailers, this will hold an appeal for a large number of people, but certainly not for all and therefore this could be termed a piece of niche card retailing.
It also looks busy on the evening of visiting with shoppers hurrying towards the tube and dipping in before heading underground. It is also a store design that, owing to its simplicity, would be straightforward and inexpensive to expand rapidly. That said, it has a distinctly well-heeled metropolitan feel about it, and as such is vying for more or less the same territory as Paperchase.
If you were to be critical, you might remark that in controlling its appearance very tightly, Scribbler has narrowed its options as regards potential shoppers, but this would be disingenuous when you look at the footfall it is generating on a cold, wet Monday evening.
Scribbler is small, brassy, young-fashion card-retailing and the message seems to be instantly understood by Kensington shoppers.
Whether it would hold the same appeal in less obviously well-heeled locations is a moot point, but it is a very strong proposition.
* John Ryan covers store design and visual merchandising for Retail Week
I recently learnt that Marks & Spencer and John Lewis had introduced budget products into its ranges and I could not help thinking, ‘where will all of this end?’ Our top two high street names succumbing to the recession and seeking the bargain shopper!
And then it struck me: this is the beginning of the end of the recession.
Think about it. When the economy started to take a nosedive into the pavement the opportunist retailers took advantage of the situation by opening swathes of cut-price discount stores with great success. The opportunities grew in this sector fuelled by bankrupt stock, struggling manufacturers and Jo Public looking to recoup the twenty extra quid a month he was paying on his utility bills. Discount shopping was assisted further by, quite literally, the biggest advertising campaign ever seen across both television and newspapers sweetly named ‘The Credit Crunch’.
Crunch Gate, as it will be known in years to come, was responsible for the change in shopping habits of millions of consumers across the country. The campaign was incredibly well orchestrated with successful ‘mini campaigns’ that even attempted to throw off the ‘shopping in the slums’ image by snapping celebrities in discount stores.
However, the actions of M&S and JLP are not the reluctant submissions of battle scarred retailers taking the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach. This is the war cry that will mark the swing of change and a restoring of order on the high street as customers are lured back to where they belong. The squeeze is now on the discount retailer who once wore his USP like a medal around his neck and is now wondering whether he should sell it for 99p or a quid.
The point is, this is all part of a cycle that will see shoppers heading back to familiar territory realising that you can get a bargain whilst stood on carpet and with some service at no extra charge.
Discount stores will diminish to a few exceptionally well-run stalwarts who would have existed with or without an economic crisis and opportunities will start to appear for new businesses.
As confidence grows, investment in retail will increase and rentable values will go up pushing out the last of the ‘pile it high’ brigade. In some sectors consumer demand for quality and innovation will eventually outstrip demand for budget products and the budget range will be pushed out the doors of M&S to make way for new merchandise. Before you know it we’ll be back where we started; or will we?
The funny thing about ‘cycles’ is that the ‘start point’ is really just down to your own perception of when you got on the merry-go-round.
The fact is, there will always be challenges in business but I believe we are at the start of the really fun part of the ride.
*Terry Harvey operates the M&P chain of independent stores on the South Coast.