26 April 2020 Business

Covid-19: How greetings cards are printed in the lockdown age

We are still sending greeting cards despite the lockdown, only now they must be bought online – a habit that may continue when the pandemic eases.

Coronavirus has not stopped Britons connecting with friends and family with a traditional printed greetings card. Even though card shops have been forced to close the country is still sending cards to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, moving house and now the lockdown.

Instead of purchasing them through shops there has been a rush to online sites, causing the major sites to crash, overwhelmed by increased volumes of traffic. When coupled with social distancing, requirements in manufacturing both Moonpig and Funky Pigeon cards were initially knocked off balance, since recovering to cope with a flow of purchases six to ten times the normal loads.

A spokesman for Funky Pigeon says: “We’ve certainly seen an impact on Funky Pigeon’s trading as a result of Covid-19. There has been a particularly big peak in demand for our personalised cards and gifts, as people are relying on ecommerce websites to receive goods without leaving the house. I think the sentiment that Funky Pigeon offers in its products is also a key factor for the high demand, as people are now not able to celebrate big occasions with their loved ones in person, they are looking for other alternatives that will be a thoughtful gesture at this time.”

However, social distancing and a need to keep staff safe has had an effect on the way the company operates, with fewer people in the Guernsey factory and office staff working from home.

There has been strong demand for cards with a lockdown theme, leading the publisher to launch a new range with 30% of net sales being donated to the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service.

The lift in demand has been felt across both publishers and printers, boosting demand to record levels – for the time of year at least.

“We are seeing volumes that are almost greater than those at the pre Christmas busy season,” says Gary Peeling, CEO at Precision Printing. “We are noticing a significant upswing in personalised cards across all brands we deal with.”

Publishers have also adapted, creating lockdown themed cards to capture the national mood. One of the smaller publishers, Dean Morris, who has grown a business based on robust humorous messages from a bedroom in the west midlands, has seen orders climb steeply.

“Lockdown cards have been very popular. I sell theses directly from my own site and through a few other online retailers. People want to reach out to other people – it’s all topical stuff.”

He uses several printers depending on run length requirements. Currently digital is getting the volume because of the size and speed of order. “It has been a very good month for selling online,” he adds. “I have noticed that traditional shops have had to get their websites up and running very, very quickly.”

Rob Plumpton, director of PrintedinGuuernsey, endorses this. The island has become the production centre for greetings cards in the UK thanks to the support of the Guernsey post office and is home to Moonpig and Funky Pigeon.

His company is more of a commercial print operation, working on government jobs as well as card production for three of the major card publishers and retailers. One has 36 shops, mostly in and around London and while it has had an online presence, the retail outlets were the focus of the business. “They have had to shut the shops and interest in online has gone up massively. Previously it was there, now they have suddenly seen that there is an online market out there, and changed the focus” he says.

The same is true of the other companies it works for, each addressing a slightly different segment of the market and exploiting the opportunity while Moonpig and Funky Pigeon were down. “We are hoping that they will retain quite a few customers after the pandemic passes.”

This has created a few problems for the business. It has split into two teams to continue working within the social distancing rules and been flexible about where people work in order to get the volumes out. Plumpton has himself been running machines in the fulfilment area. “It’s about keeping the machines running. We had a record week a couple of weeks ago and because we have the equipment to cope with the Christmas volumes, we were able to cope.”

The extra volume of greetings cards has been especially welcome at ProCo where commercial print work has plummeted. It has worked for online retailer Thortful since the card publisher’s earliest days. “We printed the first ever card for them,” says Jon Bailey. “People asked why do we get into innovation with new products and customers that don’t make you money, but I’m a fan of partnerships and becoming an extension of your clients production facilities. It can be used as a way of saying you have a good relationship with people, but the reality is that you find out if it’s a true partnership or not when the proverbial hits the fan.”

That meant the two companies were working on a plan to cope with the impact of the coronavirus as early as January, putting in place measures for remote working and cleanliness and preparing to go to a three or four day week, says Bailey. “Everyone was very clear about what the impact was going to be, even if not the actual extent,” he says.

The company had worked out which staff would be part of the furlough scheme – those with underlying health conditions and those needing to use public transport – ahead of the lock down. It is now operating with 40 of its normal 140 complement.

At Thortful the same process has been underway. CEO Andy Pearce says the preparations verged on OCD, insisting on hand sanitisers and frequent hand washing whenever someone returned to the offices in London. “We started planning for a lockdown of some sort, putting hand sanitisers everywhere. Now we have shut the office and everyone is working from home, which has meant moving computers and screens, copiers table to their homes ahead of the lockdown.”

It meant too preparing the website for a rush of traffic, cutting down on the number of designs offered and limiting hours of operation and the cut off point each day to ride the initial wave. It worked.

The company was started four years ago after Pearce, a tech entrepreneur spotted an opportunity in the card sector that existing players were not tackling. “I wanted to buy cards online and send them, but I didn’t want to have to upload photos, so started thinking about how to make the experience different. It would be something like Not on the High Street or Etsy providing a channel for creators to sell their designs with a better royalty than a conventional retailer. We could take all the print production, customer ownership and hassle from them.”

In its four years the company has grown steadily with a British style of humour, if not as robust as Dean Morris. It meant testing a few designs that were mocking consumer behaviour during the panic buying phase to see if customers were offended. They were not. “It proved to be very successful over the Mothers Day period. We sold tens of thousands of cards about hand sanitisers,” says Pearce. When the lockdown eventually came, Thortful repeated the process and again found that buyers wanted humorous cards about the lockdown to release the stress of enforced quarantine.

“As a business we realised that our customers need to stay in contact with their networks, so we started to give away 1,000 cards each day so that they could stay in contact without it costing them anything. Then we started to pay for 500 protective visors a day for the NHS.”

The partnership with ProCo is crucial. “They printed out first card four years ago and supported us a lot in the early days when we were ordering just in ones or twos, growing to the thousands a day we sell now.

“They understand our plans for the business so it was natural to talk about what was coming and planing for a lockdown of some sort,” he explains.

The close communication gave ProCo the confidence to keep more staff on than it might otherwise had considered. And volumes of cards have increased significantly. Pearce continues: “It is a 100% partnership with Jon. We look out for each other and care for each other’s staff. ProCo is an extension to my team.”

That meant conversations about managing capacity requirements as demand sky rocketed. “There have been days when we could have sold three times the number we have, but by controlling the products we have available and opening times, we have managed to stay open throughout the process.”

“We have been talking every day to work out whether we should ramp up or down, do we need more money or to work overtime,” Bailey adds.

Now the question is to whether the experience of buying cards online will lead to a long term change in consumer behaviour. Pearce thinks it will. Currently only 5% of greeting cards are purchased online compared to higher rates for books, groceries and other goods. There is a hope that this will increase to 15% in the short term.

“One of things that we have seen is that returning customer loyalty is massively increased over the last four weeks and that will stimulate a lot of card buying online, whether it is personalised with a message and sent to the recipient or sent to the customer to write a message and send on themselves. People’s buying habits will change. If I go into a Paperchase branch today, it is almost exactly the same as ten years ago. And since card buying online started, a lot of the early companies have not really evolved.

“And we think that after this, people will be a lot more aware and more caring. we have seen a massive increase in Send a Smile and Thinking of You cards. That will continue.”

The online experience will also impact other discretionary purchases. Precision has noted an increase in personalised products sent as gifts. In lockdown, people are finding the time to put together photobooks which they did not have before, says Peeling.

“It’s a gift that you don’t have to buy from a shop, so you don’t have to venture out,” he says. “And the photo product retailers say that once a customer has made that transition, they retain them as customers for the long term.”

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Jon Bailey

Jon Bailey

ProCo's partnership with Thortful has paid off during the current tough time as the Sheffield printer is producing thousands of cards daily for the greetings card publisher, ordered through its web site.

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