As Sheila and I walked the nearly deserted aisles of the 2009 National Stationery Show on closing day (May 20), we reflected on the significant changes that have swept over our industry during the last 7 years. While overall traffic was clearly down, there was still plenty of good vibes, great design artistry and paper craftsmanship and, most importantly, shared chuckles with our fellow stationers, sales reps and the many fine paper companies whose lines we are privileged to represent.
Emi Havas of Paperfolio in Summit, NJ suggested that the hardened stationery warriors were there to show solidarity with each other. We certainly agree with Emi that there was a spirit of fierce determination among fellow stationers. Nevertheless, the difficult economic situation, changing consumer behavior patterns and the overriding influence of the internet clearly threaten the industry as we know it. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but established storefront stationers will soon be forced to make some critical business decisions.
First and foremost, stationers must decide whether they wish to continue to represent “premium” lines that market aggressively through alternative distribution channels: a corporate e-commerce website, home dealers, chain stores, non-stationery businesses, charitable and religious organizations. Clearly, it is asking too much of indendent dealers to invest their time and money to represent lines that are mass-merchandized through alternative distribution channels. This is not a business model that is sustainable over time and will inevitably cause experienced dealers to close or hibernate as home dealers.
Just today, the parents we helped to select a birth announcement informed us that they had decided to purchase the identical invitation online. Unfortunately, this trend is increasing as consumers are aware that a “validating touch” is clearly more important than a low-resolution internet image. This is a “free” service that disgruntles most stationers and one which independent dealers can’t continue to perform if we expect to stay in business. In effect, by freely giving our experience to merchandise for a third-party we are simply contributing to our demise.
Secondly, fine paper companies must clearly articulate a business strategy that makes sense to management and the distribution channels that carry their products. The myth that the market is segmented into “internet buyers” and ”store consumers” is simply an urban legend. Paper companies who promote this silly justification are simply deceiving themselves and expose themselves to the ridicule of their dealers. If fine paper companies who sell online want to retain their dealers, they must make it financially advantageous for them to do so. They can do so by providing their dealers a better margin, extended terms or totally unique products which are not sold on the internet. It’s not reasonable to expect dealers to satisfy boxed product quotas when online buyers can simply buy personalized stationery and custom invitations online at the same price or even less as they can from cash-strained dealers. While fine paper companies will do what they think makes sense to meet their financial objectives, the implications of these decisions are far-reaching and probably intractable. Economics 101 suggests that a massive supply of undifferentiated products (i.e. 72 pixel images) will overtime result in lower prices. In other words, only low cost producers can expect to survive. If you want to mass-merchandize a premium brand, prepare your shareholders for lower and, most probably, unacceptable margins.
And finally, we must all start doing a better job reacting to the false marketing claims, insipid sales arguments and, most importantly, the ludicrous marketing representations of online marketing companies, wedding portals, paid Tweeters and other BlackHat SEO strategies that will eventually bring the industry to its knees. Make no mistake, these online companies are built on generating advertising revenue and commissions for promoting products that they don’t even manufacture. They could care less about the industry we represent or the craftsmanship that goes into making fine paper. While I have no problem with someone making a buck off someone else’s labor, these self-appointed online ”experts” are driving consumer behavior in ways that will eventually destroy the industry by turning fine paper into recycled waste paper. As industry leaders, we have a responsibility to demonstrate to the public that the craftsmanship that goes into making fine paper, civility and proper etiquette still matters.
For those who managed to sit through this “heavy” diatribe, Sheila has asked me to give you some links to several of our favorite restaurants in NYC. With the exception of Porchetta and Momofuku, all of these restaurants require reservations. Nevertheless, the Mario Batali restaurants seem to like old people and we generally get seated within an hour without the mandatory reservation.
Momofuku Ssam Bar: Inspired food creations from David Chang
The Spotted Pig in the West Village
Porchetta: The best porchetta that we have eaten outside of Italy (Umbria style)
Babbo: Mario Batali’s flagship. Always good and packed.
Lupa: Another Batali restaurant. Very good.
Esca: Another Batali. Our daughter’s favorite fish restaurant (Italian style)
Balthazar: A favorite for breakfast or brunch.
Sheila and Rick May
Therese Saint Clair