Consumers stocking up on Christmas cards now have myriad options: be they premium or basic packs, availability is no longer restricted to a few specialists - nor even high-street generalist stalwarts such as WH Smith.
Many consumers now buy their cards through charity catalogues or online. Throughout the year, they buy greetings cards from gift shops, supermarkets, bookstores, music/DVD chains, newsagents and more contemporary card shops. Of the supermarkets, Tesco has made a concerted effort to grow its market share, allocating substantial space to cards throughout its estate.
According to research firm Mintel, the growing market for economy cards within the £1.4bn greeting card sector provides less opportunity to establish a point of difference through product. This increases the need to differentiate on the high street through brand image.
Since its launch in 1968 in Epping by current chairman Don Lewin, Clinton Cards has become the number one card specialist in the UK, and has a presence on most of the nation's high streets with its 770 stores.
But unlike rival Paperchase, which has 70 outlets through its own stores and concessions at Borders and House of Fraser, and which has differentiated itself through product and store design, attracting ABC consumers, Clinton Cards has made no such moves. Instead, it is revamping its stores, but claims it is simply 'refreshing' the brand, and there are no plans to drop its logo or traditional teddy bear in-store graphics.
The chain is struggling. It suffered a 1.3% decline in like-for-like sales in the six months to 31 July, blaming poor footfall across the high street. However, retailers in sectors more competitive than Clinton Cards' have managed to turn in respectable sales figures. A good Christmas is vital.
Despite being known for fluffy teddy bears, Clinton has tried to update its product range with its Little Britain cards, and has moved into areas such as flower delivery and chocolates.
It has also adjusted its mid-market price point and created a value line called Simply Clinton.
We asked Tim Duffy, chief executive of M&C Saatchi, which handles Somerfield's advertising, and Alasdair Lennox, design director at retail design consultancy Fitch, what Clinton Cards needs to do to maintain its market lead.
DIAGNOSIS 1 - TIM DUFFY CHIEF EXECUTIVE, M&C SAATCHI
It's my niece's birthday. I need a card. I didn't pass a card shop so I'll get one at Tesco this evening.
In this one scenario are the three problems facing Clinton Cards. One, the company has innovated beyond cards, but the brand has stayed still. Two, the motivation is more emotional than the purchase. Three, the supermarkets are assumed to be as good as specialists even though they're not.
Clinton Cards needs to recognise that the market is not about buying cards. It is about the tangible specialness of writing, sending and receiving greetings and messages, whatever form they may take.
Emails and texts, though convenient, lack rich human spirit. Supermarkets, meanwhile, do not offer consumers an environment conducive to browsing and lack the range to guarantee finding the perfect message.
If Clinton Cards is to re-establish itself as a relevant destination, it must take a stand against technology and the convenience of supermarkets to celebrate human relationships and occasions.
- Create a richer in-store experience, including the opportunity to relax, write and post greetings. Coffee anyone?
- Build the brand explicitly around occasions, not cards. Consider a new identity to say so.
- Promote the personal date reminder service in-store. This will add value and create a loyal database.
- Innovate so quickly that supermarket cards look as dull and unimaginative as petrol station flowers.
DIAGNOSIS 2 - ALASDAIR LENNOX DESIGN DIRECTOR, FITCH
A visit to Clinton Cards makes me feel as if I've eaten too much birthday cake - slightly queasy. The shops feel incredibly feminine and squidgy, with the shelves dripping lilac-coloured soft toys. The orange 'signature' logos are dated. And if you look into the shop from the pavement, you'd be forgiven for thinking they are selling slatwall panels. If Clinton Cards had just 10% of Topshop's attitude toward product story and visual merchandising, the stores could start to feel a part of the noughties.
This dowdiness is a shame, since the company seems to have caught the mood of the moment with new Christmas ranges of both Little Britain and Sudoku products. It's interesting to note that Don Lewins founded his greetings card business from a market stall, yet nothing has changed except scale. This really does feel like a rambling family chain that has lost its way. Clinton Cards needs to turn up its passion for celebration. After all, there are very few high-street retailers whose main aim is to provide pleasure - except, perhaps, Ann Summers.
- Own 'celebration' on the high street.
- Invest in a redesign that truly reflects the chain's middle-market position and refrain from the temptation to sell tourist tat.
- Add drama and theatre to bring the brand to life.
- Add 'fast' areas for shoppers in a hurry.
- Introduce 'designer' ranges to deliver a more contemporary unisex brand.
- Be more adventurous across in-store communication.