In the week that saw Clinton Cards go into administration, what are the lessons for other retailers?
Clinton Cards is just the latest in a series of one-time high street success stories to go into administration this year. Its demise is being pinned in part on its failure to react to the emergence of online shopping.
"Clinton Cards problems were myriad," said Patrick O'Brien, lead retail analyst at Verdict Research. "They’ve been a victim of the “squeezed middle” where cash strapped customers have fled to discount outlets and supermarkets, and those looking for something premium have moved to brands such as Paperchase which are seen as better value with superior ranges.
"They have been seen as poor value, and their stores definitely need revamping. While online is only a small part of the market, it is growing rapidly, and Clinton’s slow response to building its online and personalised cards has contributed to its decline."
At a time when shoppers increasingly expected to be able to design and print their own cards online, Clinton Cards was still offering the same choices as they always had and, until relatively recently, buyers needed to go to a shop to get them.
That reliance on the high street brought its own problems, as Clinton became trapped with leases on shops that were no longer making the profits they had. Only relatively recently did it start to recognise and catch up with the demand for a different way of buying greetings cards - through digital.
But it was too little too late. Moonpig , founded in 2000, was just one of the companies that had in the meantime forged the reputation as an online cards retailer. Clinton Cards, which did not, is in now administration. The move followed a deal between its banks and its main supplier, American Greetings. American Greetings bought Clinton’s £35m loan facilities and immediately afterwards, Clinton Cards told the London Stock Exchange earlier this week, called in the debt, forcing the card retailer into administration.
The news will cast a new chill over the high street, with as many as 8,000 jobs now hanging in the balance.
So what lessons can retailers hesitating to go multichannel draw from the Clinton Cards experience?
Start with the customer
Retailers can no longer simply wait for customers to come to them. The internet means that shoppers no longer ‘have’ to buy from their local shop but can choose to go anywhere. Instead, become the retailer they ‘want’ to buy from. That means appealing, well-priced stock, delivered with great customer service.
Take the lead
Ignoring digital until it just has to be dealt with is just not a winning formula. Accept early on that the way people want to buy is changing – and find out from your customers how they’d like to buy from you. Start that conversation by putting yourself where they are – whether that’s on social media, on your website or in your shops. Online search makes it easy to find out what your potential customers are saying about you – and your competitors.
When you’ve found how where your customers are, find ways to sell there. That might mean enabling mobile sales as well as the website (analytics can show where online customers are buying). Showcasing your stock on social media could be an answer as well. The answer will be different for every retailer – but finding that answer will rely on effective research.
Offer choice – and make it easy to find
Compare Clinton Cards’ website with that of online competitor Moonpig and at first glance it appears the latter has the wider choice. There are far more categories of card on the Moonpig home page, making it easy for shoppers to find just the thing they want. Need a card to mark St David’s Day, Eid or Hanukkah? It's immediately evident that Moonpig has the answers. In fact Clinton also stocks these cards, but it’s hard to find that out by trawling through the pages (the 'other occasions' category has 167 products, taking eight pages to look through) . Rather, it takes a search of the website to elicit that information instead.
While you’re still thinking about it, others will be developing the reputation for giving customers what they want – and that gives away a major advantage. Consider Verdict’s Maggie Hinton on this. “They were a latecomer to the party,” she said. “Most people automatically think of Moon Pig when it comes to e-cards. It’s like HMV, which is fighting Amazon, which has established itself as the market leader.”