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UK Stationery Sector Forefronts Self-Expression Rather Than Utility

With digital technology encroaching on the notetaking and information-sharing territory that was once the province of paper and pens, exhibitors at the Stationery Show see the sector as likely to focus more on lifestyle accessories.

Photo: Stationery: Once a workaday necessity, now apparently an embodiment of your inner creativity. (Shutterstock.com)
Stationery: Once a workaday necessity, now apparently an embodiment of your inner creativity.
Photo: Stationery: Once a workaday necessity, now apparently an embodiment of your inner creativity. (Shutterstock.com)
Stationery: Once a workaday necessity, now apparently an embodiment of your inner creativity.

With the Stationery Show returning to London's Business Design Centre for its ninth iteration, the occasion was marked by clear signs that this once most conservative of sectors is now embracing several transformational developments. Above all, it is learning to live with the fact that stationery is no longer a must-have functional item but rather a statement purchase and an expression of personal taste.

Essentially, with technology now the first port of call when taking notes or sharing information, colourful and distinctive stationery is increasingly sought out as something of a fashion accessory – especially by female buyers. In line with this, astrology-themed stationery is selling particularly well, while there were signs of a growing preference for metallic ink pens. Almost inevitably, many at the event testified to the growing significance of online sales for the sector, a development, no doubt, that will have proved far from welcome among the UK's dwindling number of high-street stationers.

Looking to capitalise on the trend for statement stationery, meanwhile, was Bath-based Portico Designs, which was launching its latest licensed brand at the show. This new bright, nature-inspired range, produced in association with Joules, the Nottingham lifestyle clothing brand, has already notched up a gold in the Best Brand Licensed Gifting Product or Range category at this year's Brand & Lifestyle Licensing Awards.

While most of the company's output is clearly targeted at female customers, that's not to say women are necessarily buying more stationery at present. Explaining the company's thinking in this regard, Sales Director Charlie Bassil said: "Stationery is not a necessity now – it's actually a lifestyle product.

"As opposed to needing a notebook for work and going to a standard stationery store to pick up a boring standard spiral-bound version, it's now a lifestyle choice. People want to be seen using a really nice notebook or a really nice pen and I think that's definitely reflected in the type of retailers that now buy stationery from us, with many fashion-led UK high-street outlets, such as Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, now having comprehensive stationery offerings."

While the advance of technology means that electronic devices, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops are being widely used for making notes, Bassil believes this hasn't necessarily impacted on the stationery market. Expanding upon this, he said: "The notebook market's actually still massive, especially considering how much we now rely on technology in our day-to-day lives. It's a fashion accessory, which is probably why women are our best customers.

"Two ranges that are huge for us right now are our Zodiac and Constellations lines. The Constellations designs are a new venture for us, while the Zodiacs we have run for a couple of years and have no plans of discontinuing. We've also had success with our Birthstone collection, perhaps indicating that anything related to star signs does well."

By way of contrast, another exhibitor at the show was the UK subsidiary of Stabilo International GmbH, a major German stationery company best known as the world's largest manufacturer of highlighter pens, most notably the ever-popular Stabilo Boss. This year, the company was exhibiting an impressively wide range of products, many of them targeted at consumers quite different to the typical Boss buyer. Its Pastels range and Swing Cool highlighters, for instance, were clearly aimed at a far younger demographic.

Photo: Feminine themed: Portico Designs.
Feminine themed: Portico Designs.
Photo: Feminine themed: Portico Designs.
Feminine themed: Portico Designs.
Photo: The write stuff: Stabilo’s Pen 68.
The write stuff: Stabilo's Pen 68.
Photo: The write stuff: Stabilo’s Pen 68.
The write stuff: Stabilo's Pen 68.

Outlining how it is segmenting its offer, UK Field Sales Manager Michael J. Carpenter said: "The Boss is one of our more traditional offerings and it's very much an accountant-friendly product. It's an '80s icon, with its original colour scheme firmly aimed at 35-55-year-old businessmen.

"Pastels, though, sees us catering to a more female market, while Swing Cool is aimed at a younger demographic. For one thing, it fits snugly into a pencil case as it's fairly thin, while the Boss tends to dominate a pencil case. I feel that with Swing Cool, as its name implies, 12-35-year-old females are its key buyers.

"Certainly, within the retail market, more women are now buying stationery, and supermarket sales show a similar trend. Obviously, the office and commercial markets are somewhat different, but I still think, overall, females are more likely to be buying stationery than males. I think men are a little bit more practical. They're going to focus on core requirements, whereas women are perhaps more expressive and they tend to vary what they buy."

Among the newer Stabilo products on offer at the show were the Gel X erasable gel pen and the Trio Deco, a fibre-tipped metallic coloured pen set. There was also the Pen 68 Metallic, an extension to the company's existing Pen 68 range. Introducing this particular add-on, Carpenter said: "It's basically a metallic version of one very iconic product we already sell. Metallic colours seem to be enjoying a very fashion-led wave of popularity just now. While they've been available for quite a while, we're now capitalising on them a little more."

Also looking to superserve female stationery fans was Pukka Pads, a Bournemouth-based company with offices in Hong Kong and Vietnam. It has been supplying stationery to the UK's domestic market for more than 20 years, with its product portfolio ranging from jotter pads and project books to ring binders and lever-arch files. Predominately, though, the company targets the business market with its bespoke selection of lined notebooks, all of which boast distinctive metallic green covers. At this year's event, it was looking to show two of its most recently launched ranges – Glee and Pastels – both of which fall well within the design-led, female-orientated category.

For Gavin Eaton, one of the company's Account Managers, technology is changing the market for stationery rather than making it wholly obsolescent. Reflecting on the current state of the sector, he said: "There's always talk about everyone going paperless, but people still love notebooks. Notebooks will always have a role, no matter how quickly technology changes. People will never stop wanting to write things down.

"Technology, however, is changing the way stationery is bought and sold. More and more people are buying online now, with purchasing habits having completely changed. Unfortunately, that's bound to have a negative impact on the smaller retailer."

Among the more innovative items on show this year was the Chameleon Fineliner, which went on to win the 2019 Supplier Stationery Arts & Crafts Award during the course of the event. Clearly delighted that it secured such industry approbation, Nick Watt, Head of Marketing and Brand Engagement for Chameleon Art Products, the Surrey-based company behind the pen, said: "We've been selling our Chameleon pens for four years now, so we're here to show the stationery industry just what our pens do and, in particular, to highlight their colour-changing facility.

"Our patented 'dual ink' system means that, by switching and connecting lids, each pen can be used to draw in a variety of different colours. With a total of 48 colours on offer, more than 1,000 combinations are possible. The pens are also compatible with all our other products, as well as with the tools produced by other manufacturers, such as marker pens and oil paints."

Photo: Pukka Pad’s business-friendly notebook range.
Pukka Pad's business-friendly notebook range.
Photo: Pukka Pad’s business-friendly notebook range.
Pukka Pad's business-friendly notebook range.
Photo: Multicolouring: Characteristically Chameleon.
Multicolouring: Characteristically Chameleon.
Photo: Multicolouring: Characteristically Chameleon.
Multicolouring: Characteristically Chameleon.

The 2019 Stationery Show took place from 30 April-1 May at London's Business Design Centre in London.

Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, London

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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