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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?


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 ....


  1. Graham, you raised similar concerns in April 2011. At the time I wrote the following in my blog, and may have put it on here as a comment as well. The situation has not improved, it has only worsened and my thoughts remain the same!

    "Business Customised Sheets were originally intended by Royal Mail to be created for businesses to customise their mail. They even promoted the use of customised coils, though none have ever been produced as far as we know. The first were produced for Eagle Coaches of Bristol in small numbers and under 10 are thought to be in collectors' hands. The next batch appeared for major football clubs, and the England Rugby squad, and soon stamp dealers realised that they could make money by producing 'collectibles' with images of Elvis, steam locomotives, Dr Who, and royalty - in which the stamp element was purely incidental. Some were produced with different perforations or by different printers, which was why they were initially of interest to collectors. But they were never going to be listed in stamp catalogues.

    "The stamp dealers, in conjunction with Royal Mail, were producing - in effect - glossy colourful posters, which happened to have 10 or 20 1st class stamps in them. Purely money-making, not even philatelic. Then Royal Mail took to selling some of these private productions through their Philatelic Bureau adding some sort of legitimacy to them, with the inevitable next step being that Royal Mail produced similar sheets under their own name at a much lower selling price but still over 3x face.

    What was potentially a good idea for business advertising is probably the worst thing that has happened to British stamps in recent years.

    My view now is that far from widening the output, Business Customised Sheets should be dropped from Royal Mail's portfolio of products. This would produce a finite end and might encourage new collectors of BCS and RMCS to buy what is already out there. At the prices they are, why would anybody start now, knowing that there are several years of (sometimes expensive) back issues to collect, and an unlimited future? To the philatelist, or even the stamp collector, there is nothing at all appealing about these posters which happen to have stamps in, save that they can be broken up and used for postage.

    If you want to add something interesting to your collection, modern postal history is the answer, I think.

  2. The market will always find its own level and what to many seemed like a good investment has proven otherwise - we now see many Sheets (especially Business ones) selling at a fraction of even their original issue prices. Only a handful have increased even modestly in value and very few increased significantly.

    On balance I tend to agree with Ian's comments - the 'golden goose' has been over-cooked and Collectors have literally paid the price. BFDC, Benham and Buckingham have made huge profits and probably still have a fairly broad Collector base as many people still want to obtain each new issue but Planet Prints who only ever produced 100 Sheets have seemingly now ceased and 'Artizan' who produced many high quality 'Art' Series Sheets also ceased some years ago - the market has been historically flooded and for new Collectors to obtain full Collections is now just about impossible.

    I am aware of a number of serious Collectors who have ceased and are selling just about everything and cutting their losses. I only see prices declining further.

    1. ..... so is it your view that nothing can be done to reverse this trend or do you think there are things we could collectively or individually do to
      a) stimulate, b) promote c) grow interest in this branch of philately? If so

      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) Can we improve the capture current knowledge and ensure on-going support for the collecting community?

  3. The opening question to this blog is ‘Do Smilers have a future?’ Clearly this is open to debate but for starters it might be useful to look at some numbers. In the peak years 2008-2010 there were 202 ‘Business Customised’ sheets issued of which 137 (68%) were from the 3Bs (Bradbury, Buckingham, Benham) stables. Over the next 4 years (2011-2014) there were just 121 sheets issued, with 102 (84%) from the 3Bs. This tells us two things over that period– a 45% decrease in issues per year and an increase from 68% to 84% market share for the 3Bs, due mainly to the falling away of the 2nd rank of producers (Westminster, Bletchley Park Post Office, The Stamp Centre, Ridgewood and Planet Prints). Issues are now around 25 to 35 per year, so a decline yes, but maybe not terminal (unless of course RM decide to pull the plug on private producers).
    There certainly remains a dedicated bunch of core collectors, but whether as many as 200 as suggested may be a bit optimistic. It is a bit unfair to suggest that everyone collects for investment – some of us actually enjoy collecting these sheets and whilst the cost/return is a factor to be considered, it is far from the only one. As collectors we probably all aim for ‘completeness’, but whatever we collect (GB, Commonwealth, Foreign, Thematic, Post & Go etc), how many of us ever get there? The enjoyment is surely as much in the process and the study aspects as much as the end point.
    The future I would not presume to predict. Whilst it’s good to see some occasional new producers (eg Racing Post, C&S Covers, FEPA, Art Russe) these one-offs clearly won’t sustain the market. Ridgewood have stimulated and maintained a loyal interest and following with their website and catalogue, but clearly resources and time are limited. A push by Royal Mail into the corporate market as they did in the early days may return dividends, but realistically I don’t see that happening.
    In the end it’s probably down to those who wish to collect and/or take a chance to produce a refreshing new sheet or two as to whether there remains a realistic possibility for this aspect of philately to continue. I for one hope it does. Keep Smiling!

    1. ..... perhaps it was the wrong strap line, and it is a reoccurring theme/concern expressed over the years. I am very much where you are in that I just enjoy collecting them! Not for the financial return or gain, buy the enjoyment it brings me. If I want to invest I think there are better options on the stock market - at least they pay dividends (well the majority perhaps...). I guess the real question is are you satisfied as to where this branch of collecting is today or is there more we should be doing to promote this particular area of collecting. I am a bit surprised that no one has sort to set up a collectors club for customised stamp sheets as I would have thought that such a club would have provided a focus for these issues and generated an information exchange between collectors. I suppose the real challenge is how do we keep on smiling? If interest drops any further we may not be smiling for much longer ....

  4. A pity that comments are not published in full.

  5. Andrew, what do you mean. Any comments posted here are not edited by me!

  6. It is almost the 10th anniversary of the sheets that really sparked the whole genre – the London Boat Show sheets in January 2006 – and when I look at how much I’ve spent since ….. gulp! So I completely understand Jon’s concerns. Graham’s response is lucid and well thought out as always.

    For all Ian’s sterling and excellent work on the norphil website, I don’t think he has ever “got” the smilers genre. If smilers sheets are merely colourful posters, then what are FDCs if not just glamorous envelopes. And as for ‘Post & Go’ stamps and the multitude of overprints and errors … arguably horrendous !! But rather they are all legitimate arms of philately which attract collectors striving for something unusual and different.

    I feel that the smilers market will be best served by a steady number of new BC sheets being issued (but not railway station platforms or rail signalling equipment !!). Yes, the “3 Bs” (Benham, Buckingham, Bradbury) have not necessarily helped the market over the years given the number of sheets they have produced but they are capable of producing some excellent sheets; and of course they are currently the most capable people to promoting the sheets as a collector’s product. Westminster do the market no favours by their erratically available sheets (more so if wasted by being stuck on card). The Racing Post and Art Russe sheets show the potential of the BC product (especially at the reasonable price Unicorn/Graham are selling the Art Russe for). I also think the new Royal Mail Dangermouse sheet is great. It’s different, the artwork is striking and at £20, a good price. It is just what is needed to keep the product in the wider philatelic world’s eye. Similarly the RM’s commemorative sheets are at least an entry point for people to discover the smilers market.

    Talking of RM and the question “what can be done to broaden the customer base”, once upon a time, the Philatelic Bulletin used to publish a list of BC sheets. Perhaps the volume of BC deterred the PB editors from continuing with such articles. But if RM do want the smilers product to continue, such lists were great publicity. I wonder if they could be persuaded to resurrect such listings.The narrow customer base is a problem at the moment. I hope that as the economy recovers, in time collectors (new or lapsed) will come in to the smilers market.

    But I do agree that the cost of accumulating even a half decent collection must seem daunting. Current collectors will probably need to grit their teeth as the ‘second hand’ ebay market will have quite low prices for some time. But maybe if this encourages some new collectors then perhaps in the long run it may widen the base.
    But what I would say is that it is absolutely vital that the current cataloguing by Graham continues so that when new collectors do appear, they can access a comprehensive list of what is available. Having an up-to-date catalogue will be a draw in itself. And that also probably goes for the smilers-info website. It is an important window on to the market and lends it priceless credibility. So I wholeheartedly agree with Jon that some sort of succession to Graham is in place. Or simply to share the load now. And with Graham about his comments to explore other means of distributing a catalogue.


  7. ...... part 2 .....

    Graham noted the surprising lack of interest in the TS/personalised sheets. Clearly the artwork on a BC sheet looks much more professional than a TS sheet. I can understand why TS sheets might be looked on as the poor relation but I agree with Graham. For some time, I have felt that one way interest in smilers can be maintained/enhanced is through the TS sheets. More specifically by using the labels on the sheets to print images of highly collectible events and anniversaries. I have tried with very modest success to persuade companies and organisations to allow me to use logos and corporate images on personalised sheets. Say an anniversary logo. Or some image that is associated with a notable current event. I guess it is hardly surprising that most organisations are very reluctant to release their precious copyrighted material to someone who wants to use it on something they’ve never heard of (no matter how many times I cite Royal Mail’s role in the production). But imagine if one could get permission to use the Ladybird books centenary logo (a flat ‘no’); or the Rolling Stones 50th anniversary tour logo on a TS sheet (never heard back); or a still from the upcoming Star Wars film (just no point asking). OK, maybe the Rolling Stones was and Star Wars is a bit fanciful but that sort of thing would in
    time be quite a draw given their broad collectability. Maybe there are one or more collectors who might be in a position to expedite such sheets more capably than me at a reasonable cost.