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RETAILINTERVIEW


Testing times spread Blotts across landscape


founder chris manson talks about the philosophy behind his stationery shops and vision for growth - and wisdom of starting a business during a recession


T


esting products is vital, so to have your own pet testers is a brilliant advantage for Blott.


And as Louis, Grace and Arthur are also the inspiration behind the 15-month- old fl edgling stationery chain as well as


its core market, founders – and their parents - Chris and Meg Manson are already a few steps ahead of the competition. “It came from an idea we had when we were living


abroad,” said Chris, “and the children, who are now 11, eight and six, really struggled with the stationery that was available for them which was so bland and uninteresting. “We were coming back to Britain for their schooling so we had the idea of opening what I hope will be a chain of stores to cater to the market of mainly middle- class, educated families for whom stationery can be more than a utility product. We’re trying to make a good product and showcase it in a great environment.” While Meg runs the PR and Marketing side of the business, Chris is heavily involved in the products, personally designing many of the greetings cards which make up a hefty 20 per cent of turnover He’s particularly proud of his themed Rebus cards, which have a set of pictogram puzzles to be solve, such as Actors, Cartoon Characters, Footballers and Prime Ministers. The company designs and manufactures around 70 per cent of its stock, including 90 per cent of the cards, with the rest being bought-in products such as the hugely-popular and collectable Iwako erasers. Made in Japan from environmentally-friendly styrene


resin, the different-coloured sections can be taken apart and put back together.


And the in-house testing system really plays its


part: “I pretty much test everything on the children and their friends,” added Chris.“I drive all the stuff from our warehouse in London to my house in Oxford and then back again once they’ve tried it. “It’s funny because children aren’t usually bothered about their parents’ work but mine are actually interested – when we’re out if they see something they’ll say ‘this would be good in Blott, Dad’, so it’s quite nice. “It’s certainly solved our problem in giving presents for parties, we just fi ll bags with Blott products!” Against the background of the Clinton Cards collapse into administration, it’s a formula that’s bucking


16 www.greetingstoday.co.uk


the trend. Blott already have shops in Tunbridge Wells and Guildford and a successful online operation, their Reading store goes live in the next few weeks and a second opening is planned within months plus eight more next year.


Chris developed a successful business career at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Company and as Managing Director Commercial of Chelsea FC before co-founding shopping channel specialist Sit-up TV Ltd which developed a £225million turnover in fi ve years before it was sold to Virgin Media for £194million in 2005. After living abroad for fi ve years, Chris and Meg


brought the family back to Britain and decided on the slower pace of life in Oxfordshire where they planned the rise of Blott, which has a warehouse in Park Royal, London, with offi ces above.


Chris said: “I teamed up with a friend who runs his own advertising agency – My Agency - and provides all the design and branding work. Another friend does retail design and build at Raylian London Ltd, they have lots of big names like Hollister and Calvin Klein. “They are small shareholders so as a consequence the business has gained quite a lot of momentum. “The fi rst year was opening two shops to see whether there was a gap in and if our product would fi ll


it. We opened in Tunbridge Wells in March 2011 and Guildford in late August. “We have about 25 target towns which show the demographic to grow suffi cient volume. And out of those it came down to the fi rst in terms of availability which happened to be Tunbridge Wells and Guildford, which I know quite well because I grew up around here. “The trial has gone well and now we’re trying to roll out on a bigger scale. It was quite an expensive trial because we’ve produced between 1600-1800 of our own products but it’s going well and now I’ve put in a lot more money to roll out the business model further. “Some of the towns we’re looking at are Milton Keynes – I’ve just been there looking at possible premises – Oxford, Bath, Cheltenham, Brighton, Reading, Windsor, Cambridge, Chelmsford, Bristol, Southampton. I’m sure there are places in the north that would work well for us, Chester, Harrogate and Durham spring to mind, but that will be in a year or two. When you’re a small business you need to keep central costs down so we’ll remain in the south for now – and I don’t really want to be travelling up and down the country. The business I had before was a big business and I’m not interested in that. I’m not doing this for the money but because I want to make a good business so it will be on my terms. “I’m interested in creating a business of a reasonable


size, I don’t want to just run a couple of shops.” Having identifi ed their core market as the six to teens


age group and their parents who want to buy good quality stationery for them, Blott has developed nine ranges – Animals, Blonsters, Colours, Faces, Geo, Pop, Skulls, Splatts and Vintage Maps – along with cards and bought-in items which are carefully selected to fi t in with their bright and clean-cut styling. “We don’t do anything smutty,” Chris stressed, “because you can’t take your kids to the shops then. It’s all a little bit wholesome really!


“Back to school is a big time for us, the beginning of the new academic year and we had quite big spikes in sales in January and before the summer term started. “Those erasers have been very popular, although


they are erasers they’ve become collectables – and have even been banned in some of the local schools! I don’t mind, if something’s banned it becomes even more popular and we’ve had teachers coming in to buy 24 different ones as a little present for each of their class.


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