Gift Focus interview with Pen to Paper, May 2018
1 CommentMonday, 30 April 2018 | Admin
Tell us a bit about Pen to Paper
Pen to Paper opened a couple of weeks before Christmas, 2000 so we’ve been trading in Brighton’s vibrant North Laine, an area full of small interesting independent shops, for 18 years now. We’ve always been clear that we are a stationery shop rather than a gift shop though we’re well aware that a lot of people do come to us to buy presents. We specialise in pens, notebooks, cards and gift wrap, plus diaries and calendars at Christmas and New Year. As well as a bricks and mortar shop, we have an e-commerce web store and send out mail order all over the world.
Was this the first shop you opened?
Margaret was an experienced retailer having worked for a major book chain for many years. Joyce was a freelance graphic designer. We had already set up a company to republish images of women in the music hall as postcards and greeting cards. We realised we worked well together as a team, trusted each other and had a shared love of stationery. We were on holiday in France and nearly fell out over who should have first dibs on a diary and thought “If we’re this passionate about our stationery, surely other people will be too.” We went to lots of stationery, paper and pen shops, where we made a note of publishers and manufacturers of items we loved. Looking for a distributor for our cards, we went to the Autumn Fair at NEC Birmingham. It was a revelation. We realised we had the pick of marvellous suppliers with which to stock a shop.
What advice would you give someone setting up a gift stationery shop?
Decide what your focus is and stick to it. Explore which suppliers you want to use. Go to trade fairs, armed with business cards to show you mean business and collect relevant brochures, price lists and terms of business from companies that interest you. Chat with stall holders. Be honest that you are just researching with the eventual aim of opening a shop. Remember you are possibly starting long-term relationships with these suppliers. If you’re not in a position to be their customer yet, remember to move aside if they have current customers approach them - they are there to sell, though they will probably talk to you happily until a real customer comes along.
Know the area you are opening in. Think about what other shops are already in that district and how you might sit well with them. Don’t copy what other shops are doing and definitely don’t try to poach their suppliers. Find a selection of goods that you can offer, that are wonderful and priced just right that no-one else in that area is offering.
Keep a close eye on costs. Try not to pay more than you have to for renting premises, fitting it out, getting it decorated, advertising your new business. We were lucky that there was a local Traders Association in Brighton when we first opened that pooled information on local rents so we could gauge what was reasonable and what was not. Talk to any friends who run shops. Our friends who ran a shop gave us useful tips, including always check your deliveries carefully against the delivery note and invoice to make sure you only pay for what is delivered. As for advertising, social media is free and you can speak directly to the sort of people you want as customers if you can just engage them with interesting, relevant content.
How important is your location?
We knew we wanted to be in the North Laine area of Brighton. We thought a stationery shop would be a welcome addition to this area of small quirky independent shops, such as vegetarian shoes, a bonsai shop, the graphic novel shop next door, a florist, the Brighton Sausage shop, and plenty of cafes serving great coffee and cakes. It took us 10 months of monitoring estate agents’ adverts and walking the streets of our chosen area to finally find the perfect shop. This included a few hours standing on street corners to watch how people moved around the area, where they walked, even which side of the street they walked.
Do you have a lot of competition from other gift shops? How do you stand out?
We stand out by sticking to our identity as a stationery shop. Other lifestyle shops stock occasional stationery items but our customers know that they will find the widest choice of pens, inks and notebooks at Pen to Paper. We try hard not to duplicate what other traders are stocking. We keep to our own style. We attend trade fairs regularly to check out current trends and keep an eye on local artists and makers.
Please describe your product offering?
Our most important products are pens, inks, notebooks, cards and gift wrap. Other items that tie in with our stationery theme are rubber stamps, origami, playing cards and jigsaws. At Christmas cardboard masks are popular and we imagine people waiting for their Christmas dinner looking like David Bowie, Cleopatra or Mona Lisa. Obviously, calendars and diaries are hugely important at that time of year.
Which suppliers do you use?
We think one of our strengths is that we use a great many suppliers. We are proud to have been awarded the accolade of Lamy Premium Partner due to the wide range of Lamy pens we offer. We have stocked Moleskine notebooks and Clairefontaine products ever since we opened and use local suppliers such as Paper High, the Fair Trade paper importer, Artbox and 1973. We are very pleased with wrapping paper and cards from Art Angels, Star Editions and Canns Down Press as their subjects are often relevant to our location.
What’s your current best-seller? What items always fly off the shelves?
Lamy pens and Moleskine notebooks are always good sellers although Paperblanks journals are coming up fast on the outside. Perhaps unexpectedly, origami paper is a good seller and we have a new pen pouch from If which fixes to your notebook that has flown out of the shop.
What’s your USP?
A wide choice of notebooks, journals and pens at a range of prices. We would like everyone to feel they could find something in our shop. Our staff are helpful and knowledgeable about the products and we try to make customers feel at ease. Selling a pen can be a lengthy business and the customer needs to feel you have their best interests at heart.
Do you do much on social network sites, and if so how do you use them?
We use Twitter and Facebook and have a healthy following on both. We see what’s going on locally which may be relevant to the shop as well as promoting new products, commenting on trends and joining in conversations. They are a fun way to show off our personality. We run the occasional competition, the latest being around the theme of Time with a diary as a prize.
Which trade shows do you like to attend and why?
We attend Pulse, Top Drawer, Progressive Greetings and the Stationery Show. As well as seeng new trends and finding new products there is a chance to create a rapport with new suppliers and catch up with established ones. It’s important to see products in the flesh and not just in catalogues. For example Canns Down has recently introduced a lovely range of giftwrap which we ordered as soon as it was available.
How do you choose what to stock with so much choice out there?
We stick to our focus and the price must be right. Don’t be afraid to ask which are the bestsellers when talking to a new supplier and try to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. A new product will often jump out at you as you walk by but, if in doubt, don’t order it.
Has the current economic climate affected business?
We’ve had to think more carefully about our stockholding and take fewer risks. Customers seem to be thinking more carefully about purchases.
Have their been any landmarks in the business?
Although we’re now eighteen, we were very proud to celebrate our tenth birthday with a poet in residence. The theme was ‘home’ to tie in with National Poetry Day and customers shared their life journeys and how they ended up in their present home. Local poet, Maria Jastrzebska, read her poems and shared experiences with customers. We had champagne and cake and it was a brilliant day.
What does the future hold for Pen to Paper?
Although retirement looms for us, we expect that Pen to Paper will have a long and happy future.