Clinton Cards plc
Clinton Cards plc
Sales: £253.64 million ($480.1 million)(2000)
Stock Exchanges: London
Ticker Symbol: CC
NAIC: 45321 Stationery Stores; 45322 Gift, Novelty, and Souvenir Stores
Clinton Cards plc operates the United Kingdom’s largest chain of retail greeting card specialty shops. The company has grown steadily since going public in 1988, building its network of shops from just 77 primarily southeastern England stores to nearly 700 stores across the United Kingdom. The company’s stores are typically located on the United Kingdom’s fashionable “high streets,” including its 9,000 square-foot flagship store, the world’s largest greeting cards store, located on London’s Oxford Street. Clinton Cards also operates more than 23 concession shops within the Debenhams department store chain. A pioneer specialty retailer, Clinton Cards has captured nearly 20 percent of the total market for greeting cards and related gifts items in the United Kingdom, estimated to be between £1 billion and £1.2 billion per year. The United Kingdom is also the world’s second-largest greeting cards market, behind the $7 billion U.S. market. However, the United Kingdom boasts the largest number of per capita sales, with an average of 55 cards received per year per person, compared to 45 cards per person in the United States and less than 40 per person in Canada. The largest single percentage of Clinton’s card sales come during the Christmas season, which accounts for some 30 percent of all Clinton sales; the company typically posts losses during the first half of the year, relying on the Christmas season for its annual profits. Yet the company has been among the leaders of extending the seasonal nature of its business year-round, building up a strong array of spring sales—which have reached ten percent of sales—from such holidays and events as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Easter. The company has also played a role in creating and promoting “new” holidays, including Secretaries Day, Nurses Day, Bosses Day, Grandparents Day, and days commemorating saints, including Saint George. Together with the traditional birthday, anniversary and “get well” market, these sales account for some 60 percent of Clinton’s total card sales. The company is led by founder Don Lewin, his son and managing director Clinton Lewin, and daughter Debbie Darlington, who was appointed to the company’s board of directors in 2000. The Lewin family holds 36 percent of the company’s shares, which are traded on the London stock exchange.
Specialty Pioneer in the 1970s
Clinton Cards plc was founded by Don Lewin in 1968. Lewin had already been active in the greeting cards industry, working first as an agent selling greeting cards before developing a specialty store concept. Until then, the U.K. greeting cards market operated within a larger retail store format. Lewin guessed that shoppers would be attracted to a store format devoted to an extended range of greeting cards. He named his first store, opened in Epping, Essex, in 1968, after his son, Clinton, then just six years old.
The younger Lewin naturally joined his father’s business, starting out in the shop at the age of 15. Over the next decade, the Lewin family began to build the company from the first original store to a network of 77 shops covering most of southeastern England. The Clinton Cards shops were typically located in the country’s high streets and featured not only greeting cards but also gifts, stuffed animals, and other items. Helping to fuel sales was the rising trend of character merchandising, as shoppers sought products featuring representations of their favorite television characters.
By 1988, the Lewins were ready to take Clinton Cards on a new growth spurt. In order to finance its expansion, the company sold its stock on the London stock exchange. With the money raised, Clinton Cards began to open new stores, extending deeper into England. The company’s growth was also aided by flagging rental prices, the result of the collapse of the U.K. building market in the late 1980s, and a lingering recession. Despite the poor economic climate, Clinton Cards continued to book strong revenue gains. Where other retail sectors suffered from declining consumer spending, the greeting card industry—based around relatively inexpensive purchases—remained a steady seller. Indeed, the United Kingdom’s love for greeting cards placed the market as one of the world’s strongest, leading the world in per capita sales and second only to the giant United States market in total sales.
Market Leader for the 21st Century
The modern greeting cards had been invented in England in the middle of the 19th century and rapidly grew into a national tradition, celebrating not only Christmas but birthdays and anniversaries as well. “Get well” cards soon made an appearance as well. Yet in order to support an industry—and especially a fast-growing chain of retail stores—the greeting card industry continued to look for new reasons for giving and receiving cards. One of these proved to be Valentine’s Day, helping to fill the retail lull between the Christmas and Easter holidays. The extension of Ireland’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration plugged another hole in the calendar, while both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day holidays helped extend the buying season beyond Easter. Halloween also became an opportunity for sending greeting cards.
In the 1990s, retailers and greeting card manufacturers were joined by other interested parties in the creation of such new holidays as Grandparents Day, Secretaries Day, Bosses Day, and even Nurses Day. At the same time, character merchandising sales were booming, aided by such popular television programs (and the characters based thereon) as the U.S.-based animated comedy “The Simpsons,” or the Mr. Blobby sensation that briefly swept the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s. By 1994, Clinton Cards had grown into a chain of more than 275 stores.
The decision of industry giant Hallmark to exit the U.K. retail market in order to concentrate on manufacturing cards gave Clinton Cards a new opportunity for growth. In October 1994, the company bought out Hallmark’s chain of 83 U.K.-based stores. The purchase price of £3.5 million, described as a bargain price, extended Clinton Cards’ reach across England and into Wales.
The company followed that acquisition with the purchase the following year of another rival greeting card specialist, Carlton Cards. That purchase, for £3.2 million, gave Clinton Cards 112 new stores and extended its reach into 57 new towns across the United Kingdom. The company began a massive conversion program, transforming its new Hallmark and Carlton stores into the Clinton Card format, while also identifying and closing overlapping stores.
Clinton Cards, which now featured Clinton Lewin himself as managing director, continued to build its retail empire through organic growth as well. After topping 450 stores by mid-1997, the company stepped up its new store openings, with its 500th store opened in time for the company’s 30th anniversary celebrations in March 1998. At that time, the company announced plans to open another 30 by years’ end, with an ultimate goal to run an empire of some 800 stores.
By the end of 1998, however, Clinton Cards found itself revising its goals. In September of that year the company announced its acquisition of rival GSG Holdings, adding to its stable that company’s 212-store The Greetings Store, Strand, and Papertree retail chains. As with the company’s other major acquisitions, the purchase of GSG Holdings, which cost the company more than £27.5 million, was financed by the company’s own cash flow. GSG also helped establish Clinton Cards in Scotland, while reinforcing its total U.K. presence. After the acquisition, the company announced its plans to close up to 50 stores, up to half of which were from the GSG group, in order to reduce its surplus stores and streamline its portfolio. Nonetheless, the company entered 1999 with nearly 700 stores. At that time, the company began converting its new stores to the Clinton Cards format, while at the same time carrying out a renovation program on some 60 of the former GSG stores. Clinton Cards, which continued to seek new acquisition opportunities, announced its intention to continue adding up to 40 new stores per year. Management speculated that organic growth alone could build the chain to more than 1,000 stores.
Clinton Cards had taken the position as the undisputed leader of the United Kingdom’s greeting cards market, capturing some 20 percent of the estimated £1.2 billion market. The company continued to benefit from strong character marketing initiatives, such as the sudden boom in “South Park” character-based merchandise that swept the United Kingdom in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, Clinton Cards was seeking to launch a new flagship store, settling on London’s Oxford Street and completing the store in 1999. At 9,000 square feet of selling space, the new Clinton Card store established a world’s record for the largest store devoted to greeting cards sales.
Clinton Cards offers the most extensive range of quality greetings cards, gift dressing and plush merchandise available in any high street. This is especially so at seasonal times such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas and Easter. Clinton’s has taken the lead in offering cards for numerous other occasions such as the U.K. Patron Saints’ Days as well as festivals and New Year celebrations of other religions and nationalities.
New Directions for the Future
The late 1990s and turn of the century saw the company develop two new retail initiatives. The first was the installation of a number of concession shops in the Debenhams department store chain. The initial trial of four Clinton Card boutique shops proved successful enough to encourage both companies to roll out Clinton Card boutiques across most of the 100-store Debenhams chain, a move which began in 2000. At the same time, Clinton Cards began identifying other potential locations for boutiques shops, such as hospitals and garden centers.
The second new initiative brought the company onto the Internet, when Clinton Cards launched its e-commerce web site in April 2000. The web site enabled customers to personalize their own cards, including wedding invitations, while also establishing a personal reminder calendar for sending greetings. The move was also seen as a defensive one, as some analysts questioned whether web-based and email greetings messages might one day rival traditional greetings cards.
In September 2000, the company brought on a new member to its board of directors; Debbie Darlington, the 32-year-old daughter of Don Lewin, had joined the family business when she was 17 years old. That move sparked criticism from stock analysts, who had already proved wary of the family-run company. In response, Clinton Cards expanded its board to include two more non-executive directors. Nonetheless, other analysts pointed out that the Lewin family leadership had successfully built the company from a single store to an industry heavyweight in just 30 years. With the new generation already guiding the company’s operations, Clinton Cards was ready to help the United Kingdom greet the new century.
Blooms of Bressingham Holdings plc; Bogod Group plc; The Boyds Collection, Ltd.; Calendar Club LLC; Cele-brateExpress.com, Inc.; DFS Group Ltd.; Factory Card Outlet Corporation; Findei plc; FTD.COM INC.; The Gadget Shop Ltd.; Highway Capital plc; JUSCO Co., Ltd.; King Power International Group Co., Ltd.; William Sinclair Holdings plc.
- Don Lewin founds Clinton Cards.
- Clinton Lewin joins the company.
- Debbie Lewin Darlington joins the company.
- Company is listed on the London Stock Exchange.
- Hallmark Cards’ U.K. stores are acquired.
- Company acquires Carlton Cards.
- The Clinton Cards e-commerce web site is launched.
Blackwell, David, “Product Range Benefits Give Cheer to Clinton,” Financial Times, January 12, 2001.
Duckers, John, “Low Expectations on High Street Knock Firms Sideways,” Birmingham Post, January 12, 2001, p. 26.
Kahn, Stephen, “Clinton Chief Plays ‘Happy Families’ Card,” Daily Express, September 22, 2000.
Kleinman, Mark, “Clinton Cards Explores In-Store Postal Service,” Marketing, November 9, 2000, p. 1.
Litterick, David, “Love Rescues Clinton,” Daily Telegraph, April 5, 2000.
“Poorly Cards Retailer Hopes to Get Well Soon,” Birmingham Post, September 22, 2000, p. 21.
“Seasonal Greetings,” Investors Chronicle, October 13, 2000.