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 ....