Memento Mori

“One market changing technology is bad enough for market leaders, but what would you do if two came along at once?”


I’m not sure if you can buy a greeting card in Clinton Cards, the dominant greetings card retailer found on most UK high streets, that will encourage someone to “remember their mortality”, which is what Memento Mori means. Recent events suggest that if there is they should perhaps send one to themselves.

Like so many high street retailers struggling with the internet Clinton Cards has been under pressure to change for some time. In October it appointed the ex MD of Starbucks UK to help it make some changes. Just as he is about to announce his plans it looks like it has been taken out of his hands.  It seems that rather than a turnaround it is facing administration after its main supplier bought control of £35m of its debt from the banks in order to protect its supply position in the event of the sale of the business.

Clinton Cards has 800 stores and 4800 full time staff so high street landlords will be worried along with the employees. Again and again we see that with market dominance, in this case on the high street, comes considerable risk when the world changes. As substitutes appear and start to take your lunch it can be difficult to respond, or even know how to.

Since Clinton Cards was founded, by Don Lewin in 1968, the world has changed and sadly Clinton Cards have not responding quickly enough to these changes. Of course the internet has completely undermined the proposition of several high street retailers. In addition, this market has had to face another massive technological change with the development of digital printing which means that it is now much easier and economical to print one-offs.

The personalised online greetings market is dominated by that has something like 90% of online greeting card sales in the UK. Rather than offering standard products most of its products are personalised. Having survived the dot-com bubble this business, only formed in 2000, has positioned itself very effectively in all our minds as the market leader in the UK for innovative personalised greetings cards and products and must be having a significant effect on Clinton’s Business.

Clinton’s fist half sales, to January 29, were £197m, on which it made a small loss of £3.67M, so all is not lost. It has a strong brand and there will always be some form of distressed “bricks” market for greetings cards, but it will require some fancy footwork to reinvent this business to compete with the likes of the now established

The greetings card value chain used to be: design + mass printing + distribution + storage + retail sales. It is now: personalised and automated online design + one-off printing + direct mail to customer. Few value chains have undergone such radical change so I can sympathise, to some extent, but why haven’t Clinton Cards acted sooner? The answer is that change on this scale is normally too far outside the box for incumbent management to deal with and new blood is normally required. From what is happening it seems that it is likely to be in place soon.



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