When I started working in the stationery industry in the late 1980’s, nearly all the stationery sold in the UK was made in either UK or Europe. A4 refill pads, notebooks and files were readily available at competitive prices from many sources in the UK and the more technical products like pens and drawing instruments from Europe. The only things I remember buying from further afield were photograph albums from Japan and pencils from Thailand. Today the position is completely reversed with only certain types of products made here and often from just 1 or 2 manufacturers... and some products like pens not being manufactured here at all!
So is it important that we still make stationery products in the UK and has the referendum vote changed anything? To be able to answer this question effectively we need to understand what manufacturing capability stayed in the UK, who it was relevant for, and how this may change in 2017 and beyond.
All the production that moved from the UK and Europe moved because of the significant cost savings available which were believed to far outweigh the longer lead-times, quality control challenges and increased volumes that had to be bought when dealing with manufacturers in China. In some sectors nearly all retailers were moving their business to these new suppliers and the cost savings were allowing retail price to be driven down by promotions encouraging customers to buy these alternative products so retailers could grow their market share. This was particularly important at times like Back to School when we saw A4 refill pads reach 240 pages for as little as 79p!
However some retailers particularly with own brand programmes could not justify ordering high volumes of individual lines and often did not have the infrastructure to manage importing either, so for them having a UK manufacturing capability was critical. For me as a buyer at the National Trust I was keen to have all of our own brand stationery Made in the UK and I was fortunate enough to find suppliers who could produce all our Christmas cards and notecards here - and in my time as a buyer there I managed to bring all the calendar production back to the UK and reduce my costs!
In the last 15 years the commercial and office stationery sectors have become very commoditised which has necessitated production being moved around the world chasing the cheapest costs. The recent exchange rate changes are putting real pressures on these sectors as buyers try to resist the price increases that are inevitable as the £ buys less.
Jon Green Sales Director of Sinclairs, a UK manufacturer of notebooks including the famous Silvine brand has some interesting insights which highlight the pros and cons of the current situation...
"In 2016 Sinclairs increased Silvine branded UK sales by over 9% but post Brexit trade is somewhat depressed as buyers feel the impact of cost price increases of up to 15%, linked to the pound/dollar exchange rate.
Importers will probably have to absorb the whole cost price movement and as UK manufacturers, we are not immune from these increases either as we also buy bulk raw materials like paper globally.
Regardless the price gap has closed and UK manufacturers should be confident of future business gains as the Chinese, Indian, Indonesian etc markets start to consume more production domestically, reducing their need to export in such volumes.
We have also noticed the more dynamic UK buyers have been looking to move their product sourcing to the UK because of the service and flexibility benefits.
In Q1 the vast majority of goods have increased in costs in the UK, and consumers are now experiencing the impact of the recent referendum. Export benefits are real, and Sinclairs has gained new business as a result, which combined with our local UK growth bodes well. "
So as Jon explains this change in exchange rates is beneficial for anyone exporting from the UK and for those UK producers who exhibited at the shows in January and February there were significant numbers of buyers from Europe and further afield keen to buy at these advantageous rates. Kevin Turner at Charfleet Bindery noticed an increase in European customers for their Charfleet range of Linen note books with interest from France, Italy, Turkey, Denmark and Portugal.
For GO Stationery exporting has been important for a while; based in London and manufacturing there too they now supply stationery to more than 40 countries. Managing Director Neil Atkinson said:
”The growth of our export business has been fundamental to the success of GO Stationery... whilst the weaker pound undoubtedly helps with some current price negotiations, most of our business is based on long term relationships with clients who deal with us for a combination of factors of which price is just one, alongside quality of design, and the fact that we design and manufacture in our own UK factory.”
The importance of 'Made in the UK' as a marketing message has varied over the decades, regaining significance in the last recession as consumers looked to support British industry. This focus now has renewed vigour after last year’s vote as industry and consumers become concerned about trading difficulties that may develop in the future. However there is another audience for products that are 'Made in the UK' as we get more tourists coming to the UK to take advantage of our cheaper prices but are also keen to take home truly British souvenirs - particularly at the luxury end of the market where brands are important so suppliers to retailers like Harrods and Selfridges are sure to benefit.
Leathersmith of London's diaries and undated products are sold in Harrods , Fortnum and Mason and Liberty and their diaries had a very good sell through this year with these retailers placing top up orders suggesting foreign demand was higher this year and this is supported by the fact that their overseas web sales were up this year too.
But this is not the preserve of the West End of London. Destinations like Edinburgh, Cambridge and Stratford on Avon and our other visitor attractions will also benefit, as will the stationery suppliers to these businesses. Padblocks are a major supplier to this sector and this is a picture of a product they have produced for Chatsworth.
However there are product sectors like gift and personal stationery where design, finish and detailing have always been valued and retailers and consumers have been prepared to pay a bit more for these unique features. UK manufacturers have been responding to this and the variety of products available in the UK is very exciting. One area that stands out is notebooks where we now have a wide variety of formats being produced in the UK at competitive prices
A good example of the benefits of manufacturing in the UK is the experience of new entrant to the market Say Nice Things for whom sourcing products from the UK was fundamental for their brand as they wanted to support home-grown manufacturing. SNT is positioned at the upper end of the market so the products have to shout quality and detail on every level and to ensure this they wanted to be able to work closely, face-to-face and side-by-side with everyone throughout the process; from design concepts to artwork and final production.
By creating everything here in the UK they could facilitate that and deliver beautiful, well-made products that are a joy to use with the additional benefits of smaller quantities of each product design/format and shorter lead-times.
As the notebook sector shows the more product choice offered the stronger the demand and the healthier the sector.
Card publishers wanting to broaden their product offer have been one of the driving forces behind the growth in demand for design led notebooks. Because of their understanding of board, paper and print they have constantly challenged what can be achieved and having manufacturers in the UK like Enveco offering lower minimums, shorter lead-times and easier control over the design process means that for many card publishers stationery is now a significant part of their annual sales.
Notebooks are not the only stationery products Made in the UK and West Design are a good example of a company making a diverse set of products including Kids Craft activity kits, Westfolio polypropylene folders and portfolios, West Templates, Magic Color and Stephens papers and chalks which generate almost half of their annual turnover. Managing Director Jo Bray is proud of their Made in UK credentials and believes it is the short lead times and flexible MOQ’s on their products is a big appeal for UK buyers and the exchange rate since Brexit has definitely been a help.
For me there is no doubt that it is important for us to continue to make stationery products in the UK and in the current economic situation there is demand from retailers, consumers and tourists who want to buy it.
For those manufacturers who have been brave enough to maintain capacity in the UK throughout, business is coming their way. It will not be easy and price will always be an issue but there are plenty of other advantages for buyers who are prepared to support stationery products Made in Britain.