The town in the South West of England where I live is a small but lively market town with a good range of shops. One of these is a stationery store which appears to do good business; they're usually busy when I visit, at any rate. I suppose I ought to be grateful that my small town can support such a place when other towns in the district cannot. This shop sells a wide range of products with brands such as Caran d'Ache, Parker, Pilot, Staedtler, Tombow, Woerther, Letts and Clairefontaine available in stock. The shop is crammed with goods.
However, I'm ambivalent about the place. A visit to a stationers' should be a moment of joy, but there are always reasons not to celebrate. Here is a summary of the reasons why:
They never seem to have quite what I want in stock. There have been many occasions when I have asked the store manager about goods which simply are not in stock. For example:
Staedtler Mars Lumographs?. “I’ll have to order them specially. That’ll be £13 for a dozen. If you want a mixed tin, I can only order them in tens and I can’t sell them because customers think they’re too expensive.”
Highlighter pencils? “We used to have those, but I’ve not seen them for years.”
Pelikan Violett ink? “Oh, they’ve stopped making that.”
And so on.
The prices. I realise that a retail premises is likely to incur higher overheads than an online business and will therefore charge manufacturers' recommended retail prices for goods. Fair enough. The mark-ups are consistently high, and there’s no discounting that I can see. I’ve never seen this shop offer bulk discounts for anything. (I've never asked though, for fear of causing offence.) A boxed dozen pencils, for example, costs the same as twelve individual pencils. Inflation here is higher than elsewhere – understandable when most of the goods are imported and the value of Sterling is weak compared with the Euro, and most of the goods are brought in from Eurozone countries. But prices are never revised downwards. When Value Added Tax was lowered to 15% here during 2009, none of the prices dropped. However I have no doubt they will increase once it is raised to 20% at the beginning of 2011.
They’re never open when I can get there. This is one of the few shops in my town (indeed, perhaps the only shop) which, in 21st Century England, still closes for lunch. Every day this shop closes between 1pm and 2pm, even on a Saturday, which generally is the only day of the week I can get to it. I’ve lost count of the number of occasions I’ve been unable to buy something or have had to change my plans, in order to be around when the shop is open. On one occasion I waited until after 2pm on a Saturday, only then to discover the place was closed for the afternoon for staff training. I’m only glad I do not have to make a long journey specially to visit the shop because I would be angry if I found the shop was closed if I’d come from out-of-town.
Fortunately I do not have to rely on this store for my stationery fix. It’s nice to go in and browse, when I can get in, and perhaps pick up a Tombow Brush Pen or a box of ink cartridges, but I probably buy more stationery from supermarkets than from this shop. I can get basic supplies such as pencils, index cards and notepads from my local Sainsbury’s or Tesco. For exotica I can go online to internet-based suppliers. Shops such as the one I have been describing I feel will have a hard time surviving in a retail environment experiencing a pincer movement from supermarkets on one flank, and niche internet sellers on the other. This shop seems to survive on its photocopying and printing business, which is just as well because if it had to live on its retail sales alone, I suspect it would have closed years ago.