Monday, July 27, 2015

Do Smilers have a future?

A couple of months ago I received an e-mail from Jon Gray which raised interesting questions which, after careful consideration, I am now sharing here in an effort to solicit your views and thoughts as I think Jon raises some interesting points which, if left unanswered, could see our hobby in further decline.  I have posted this article on the Smilers Blog and if you hit the link you can review the comments made by others and leave your views for all to share.

Here is Jon's e-mail....  

Ever since I started collecting business stamp sheets I have been concerned about the future of these stamp sheets. I have set out below a few of these concerns and comments.

Concerns …

a) Are these ones you share? 
b) Is enough being done to address them? 
c) Is there anything I can do to help?

Comments....

1)  Nearly all new issues come from one of 3 sources - Benham, Buckingham and Bradbury!  I am not familiar with the position at Benham, but Adrian Bradbury appears to be winding down as does Tony Buckingham. Without regular new material, interest in the sheets could decline and the interest and value of existing sheets may fall - impacting collectors and stamp businesses holding stock for sale. 

2) There is a small customer base - perhaps no more than a couple of hundred regular collectors. Partly I think this is a lack of publicity, but also is a question of cost. New issues alone cost over £1,000pa and building up a comprehensive collection is expensive and not something, therefore, I could have contemplated until my mid-50s. I expect my position is not uncommon across collectors. We need a way to expand the customer base through higher volumes and lower unit costs - though even at the volumes and prices that Royal Mail achieve on its Generic sheets there will be many who still find collecting too expensive. 

3) The small customer base also limits the size of the secondary market (which seems based primarily around e-bay). This limits the ability of collectors to extend their collections - and will put off stamp businesses holding stock. 

4) We remain heavily dependent on the excellent work you do maintaining the Smilers-info website, the large stock of sheets you carry and your enormous wealth of knowledge. I have no idea what your medium term plans are - but we need to capture the knowledge you (and other long term collectors) have and have a succession plan in place once you decide to reduce your involvement. 

5) I am surprised that an organisation as large as the Royal Mail continues to support a low volume market such as business Smilers sheets. Is there anything we can do to make the future more certain?  Unless we can maintain a vibrant (and commercially viable) new issues market, I think interest in business Smilers sheet collecting will fade away - which would be a great shame for those of us currently enjoying collecting them.

My response was an off-the-cuff reply - I was on vacation and wanted to acknowledge Jon’s e-mail and comments.  Having "sat on it" for a month or so I am happy to share my response to promote a debate and perhaps generate some fresh ideas.

Here are my initial thoughts:

With regard to Business Customised and Personalised Sheets the problem is definitely the low collector base. I am not sure why that is because interest in generic and commemorative sheets is still relatively high, in the thousands at least. At Europhilex the queues for the overprinted show mini sheet were 200 yards long on the first day. 7,500 were produced, the same as the recent Anthony Trollope Commemorative Sheet, yet I didn't see queues for those.

If I had to guess why folks are discouraged at taking this up as a collecting interest it would probably be two factors.  a) Accessability and b) Cost.
I think the difficulty in finding some of new issues yet alone the older sheets puts people off from starting a collection that they will never complete and collectors do like to complete a collection if nothing else.  Not everyone has a computer, not everyone can access www.smilers-info.com and other sites that promote the sheets.  
Also, I think the recession has had an impact on what individuals collect and I know of many of the early dedicated Smilers collectors have given up and sold their collections in recent months/years because they can't or don't want to keep up with the cost or maybe its because it has all become too commercialised. 
At Ridgewood we did try to compete with the big three and I believe we produced some interesting sheets at relatively low cost a few years back but the fact is we are still out of pocket on many of the sheets we produced five years on!  

Our customer base and reach are much smaller than the big three and we cannot afford to advertise in the way they have in the past to keep costs low.  On a positive note we have a good stock of cheap postage but are holding back breaking up the remaining sheets as we run it with a passion not as accountants.
I spent a considerable amount on the stock of two sheets from Westminster last year (I thought I was lucky to have tracked them down but since have had second thoughts)  and I am definitely still showing a significant loss on the deal by retailing them at what I considered reasonable prices rather than at £100-£150 a sheet others might have charged. There have been individuals and companies who have exploited the market and produced overprinted personalised sheets at prices in the £100's. Planet Prints produced some excellent business sheets but choose to sell these at c. £100-£150 each. 

Even more surprising is the lack of interest in personalised versions of the sheets. These are arguably the most interesting aspect of the hobby for me but most folks are not interested in collecting them. In my view some of the hardest to find Smilers sheets fall into this category.

It is my view that Royal Mail have effectively killed off the Business sheet market by promoting their commemorative sheets - there is little difference in basic appearance, they are less than half the price of the Business sheet competition, and they are well produced/presented.  How can anyone compete with Royal Mail who incidentally sell on eBay at their retail prices, taking into account eBay and PayPal fees effectively undercutting their own retail prices against which the trade cannot compete - it's disgraceful in  my view that they have blurred the lines between a stamp producer and a stamp dealer - they are not even members of the PTS as far as I know!

The point is that the Smilers collectibles are relatively expensive to produce unless you are Royal Mail, they have a poor reputation caused by Royal Mail and others cashing in on the products (personalised Smilers, business customised Smilers, Smilers for Kids, Commemorative Sheets, Exhibition sheets) and a few thoughtless individuals, all sharing the same end goal - a quick buck. All have conspired to give this section of philately a bad name and reputation. Will it ever change? Who knows but unless companies and individuals reign back the number of issues per year and the consequential costs to a more sustainable level I fear that our particular strand of stamp collecting will not survive. Post and Go is going exactly the same way and although I started collecting these a year or two ago, I am seriously rethinking that strategy!

I for one have done more than most to a) stimulate, b) promote c) support our hobby.  That said, I think folks will continue to collect what they want to collect and drop in and out to suit themselves and current trends.

The best way I know of supporting/promoting the hobby is a specialist catalogue but it is quite a task to update this in its present form and I am not yet fully retired!   Perhaps I should look at ways of spreading/sharing the information by other means - a lower quality, lower cost catalogue printed at home that can be updated annually for an annual fee, an e-book version downloadable over the internet for a fee.

In essence the issues raised can be summarised as follows:

1) How do we encourage new entrants to the business customised market place and ensure the continued supply of independent products other than Royal Mail issues from the likes of Benham, Buckingham and Bradbury recognising that some of them are not getting any younger? 

2) What can be done to broaden the customer base?

3) How do we capture current knowledge and ensure on-going support for the collecting community? 

Please share your thoughts and comments here ....


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Customised/Personalised New Smilers now available  


I have patiently waited months to get my hands on images of these new customised stamp sheets, and despite numerous requests to Royal Mail I am still waiting! However, good news!! I can now share with you actual images of the issued sheets, courtesy of a fellow Smilers sheet collector who has kindly provided images of his order. The eight new customised stamp sheets individually each represent a single themed stamp from the recently issued set of eight Smilers stamps with the theme (e.g. Mum) highlighted in the top-left/bottom-right of the sheet. As the sheets are available in both half sized A5 and full sized A4 sheet formats (10/20) the sheet theme is highlighted twice in the full sized sheet design along with the Royal Mail strap-line.  The sheet designs bear more than a passing resemblance to the generic stamp sheet design, disappointingly in our view.  Click on any image below for more detailed information on the individual sheet designs.









Disappointing, to say the least, is how we have summed up these designs, which look a little last-minute and rushed to mirror the generic sheet design and the updated Smilers range.  I can't help thinking that Royal Mail seem to have lost the plot on this one!! When a customer orders a sheet of say Love stamps they should receive a keep-sake sheet with the stamps and labels set in a sympathetic boarder design - not a mish-mash of colours and graphics reminiscent of the entire range of Smilers - No!!  It's just not appropriate for a single-themed customised stamp sheet, but that's just our view - what do you think?      

Friday, October 5, 2012

Buckingham's Royal Flying Corp Cover Enigma


Earlier we had alerted to a change in sheet design adopted for the Buckingham Covers Royal Flying Corps stamp sheet issued recently.  Here is the pre-issued artwork and the as-issued image.
 

         
I recently received a letter from Buckingham Covers asking me to return the Commemorative Cover issued by them for this issue as they had inadvertently failed to add a King George V 2d stamp and cachet that had been included in the pre-issue artwork for this cover.  

       

As I was preparing to return it as requested I noticed a strange thing. The Smilers and stamp and label affixed to the cover was not a Smilers stamp as advertised but a privately produced label affixed alongside a Union Flag stamp to look like a Smilers stamp/label.  To say I was surprised would be an understatement. 



So I wrote to Tony Buckingham and asked him how why they had changed the stamp design, why they had chosen to use a privately produced label in lieu of a Smilers stamp and label and whether they had ever done anything similar before,  because the cover is still being advertised as follows:

Our cover commemorates the centenary of the formation of The Royal Flying Corps. It features a stamp and label from our sheet and is postmarked on 13th May 2012. It also features a two pence stamp and cachet.

I received a reply from one of Tony's employee's as follows:

I've been forwarded your email and have looked into the matter for you. I'm afraid the sheets themselves were delayed and didn't arrive in time for us to be able to use the stamps from them on our covers. As this was the case, all of the covers were stuck with the Union Jack stamp and reproduced label as unfortunately we didn't have another option.
I hope that answers your question and apologies that you have been disappointed on this occasion.


Whilst Buckingham have side-stepped the questions of why the change in stamp design and whether this has ever happened before (I am still pursuing these so hopefully I can update you on their response later this month), I can not accept that this was a credible response to this problem. They completely ignored the personalised Smilers service which for the price of five personalised stamp sheets would have netted them 100 stamps/labels for their cover production run. 

What do you think?  

Personally I was quite shocked that a reputable company such as Buckingham Covers could take such actions without telling their customers and their response left a number of questions unanswered.  But perhaps it is just me feeling somewhat "sold short" on this cover (I have since returned it for a full refund). I would like to hear what you think so I have posted this article on the Smilers Blog and encourage you to have your say so that appropriate feedback can be given directly to Smilers cover producers in general. If we do not reject such practices the next step will be home produced Smilers labels and stamps!!. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

For Your Eyes Only - New Commemorative Sheet from Royal Mail 

Whilst no official details of this sheet have been released we spotted a competition run by Royal Mail  inviting the public to choose the label designs for a new Commemorative Stamp Sheet, to be issued c. 1st May 2012 celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the James Bond movies. 


A selection of bond posters are illustrated and the public are requested to choose their 10 most favoured designs (we thought the above most appropriate!?) to appear on labels to be printed adjacent to the Union Flag Smilers stamp, in what looks to be a complete rip-off of the idea that George Kriesler used for a clutch of overprinted themed sheets featuring the very same movie posters.  



Is there anyone left at Royal Mail with a creative spark that can come up with an original idea that will keep us coming back for more? I just despair at the current creative team and at their apparent ignorance of their own stated policies.

When these commemorative sheets first appeared in 2008 we were told that they would be used to commemorate significant anniversaries of national importance that did not quite make it into the stamp issuing programme. Last year we saw this format used to promote the Olympic Games - not an anniversary but at least a significant event of national interest.  Now we hear that will use this format be used to promote the 50th anniversary of the first James Bond film - hardly a significant anniversary and certainly not of national interest!

Royal Mail would be well advised to look at the pubic have turned against the Bankers in their masses who are now seen as crooks, rip-off merchants and generally  not nice fellows more interested in their fat bonuses than providing a valued service to the public who they say they serve.

Does this strike a cord? Have your say here at the Keep Smiling Blog spot!  

Monday, October 24, 2011

Plumbing New Depths

Having covered just about every railway line and steam engine imaginable during the past 10 years of Smilers, I was looking forward to a period of returning sanity as the various sheet producers refocused their attention on more meaningful subjects for future Smilers sheets.   You can therefore perhaps understand my reaction when the I learned that the next Benham sheet due in November will feature, wait for it, British Railway Tunnels, apparently the first in another long line of anarchical Smilers sheets!!


I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies in that the theme is limited to the British Isles - a series on European Tunnels could have kept their order books full until Spring 2020 at least - or am I being a tad cynical here? No, I don't think so! Why on earth does the 125th Anniversary of the Seven Tunnel warrant a souvenir Smilers sheet? But no doubt we will all buy one just to add to our growing room full of Smilers sheets. I started this website to encourage this branch of philately but this has much to do with philately as stale British Railways ham and cheese sandwich. Hang on, you have got me thinking now ....
What next? Why not have your say. Can you be as creative as a Smilers Sheet producer? I have added a Smilers blog entry so that you can have your say. Here's a few ideas to get you going. (24/10) 
  • British Railway Stations
  • British Railway Lavatories
  • British Railway Cafe's
  • British Railway Car Parks
  • British Railway Uniforms

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Gulliver's Travels  


Last month I mentioned that Adrian Bradbury was considering a new direction for his Business Customised Stamp Sheets and at the time he very kindly provided me with a sneak preview of the future.  At STAMPEX Adrian gave me his permission to share this image with readers of this web site and we are delighted to be able to share this potential new sheet with you. We think its great but it would be great if you would take a minute and let us and Adrian know what you think. To this end I have set up a blog entry over at the Keep Smiling Blog to enable you to have your say.


Please let Adrian know what you think and help shape the future of our hobby. (09/03)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

....and now for something completely different!!

I note, with some disappointment, that Benham have continued to pursue the thematic Royalty and Railway subjects represented by their their latest two sheets. Given the vast possibilities available to sheet designers it never ceases to amaze at the sheer lack of imagination and originality that goes into the production of some sheets on the market.


There can be no doubt that popular thematic themes help broaden the appeal of these customised sheets so the subjects may, in part, be selected with one eye on profit. Nothing wrong with this. However, once in a while someone produces something fresh and imaginative and it stands out from the crowd. Planet Prints are distinctive in this area and are to be commended for their diverse range of sports and pastimes represented in their sheets.

Given this background I thought it was time to engage the Smilers collecting community in a debate on the direction of the hobby - content, frequency of issues, print runs, etc., etc., by way of feedback for to sheet producers such as ourselves.

Here's some statistics to think about. In 2008 64 new sheets were produced, this increased to 76 sheets in 2009 and dropped back to 61 sheets in 2010. At around 60 sheets a year this represents five new sheets a month - more than one a week at a minimum cost of around c. £150 per month. Is this sustainable?

To get you going here's just a few prompters...

- What are your ideas for new sheets for 2011/12?

- What do you want more of?

- What do you want less of?

- What is a sustainable annual production of of new sheets - 50, 60, 70 or something much smaller?

It's time to have your say!