21 Sept 2017
UK Gift Industry Considers Export Options as Brexit Reality Hits Home
For exhibitors at this year's Home & Gift Buyers' Festival, one of the UK's leading events in the gift and premiums sector, it was business as usual on the homefront, although many were clearly rethinking their overseas-sales strategy.
While the long-term impact of Brexit is far from clear, the UK's gift industry seems determined to thrive no matter how grave the forebodings appear in other sectors across the country. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Home & Gift Buyers' Festival, the Harrogate-based expo that has been a fixture of the industry for more than 50 years.
Extending over three days, the 2017 event showcased a huge range of assorted gift items, offering up a revealing cross-section of the current state of the sector across the UK. Indeed, Euro-gloom aside, many exhibitors seemed determined to present a reinvigorated front with a notably fresh approach and a surprising number of new products.
One company clearly embracing this philosophy was Manchester-based GPO Retro, a home-electronics company with a clear knack for nostalgia. Established in 2009, the company's name is a knowing nod to the General Post Office, once the UK's national post and telecoms provider, and clearly signals its mission to reinvent a number of iconic items from yesteryear.
Outlining his company's quirky take on the gifting sector, Gary Basso, GPO Retro's Managing Director, said: "We originally resurrected the brand when we intended to focus solely on making telephone handsets for the residential and hospitality sectors. Subsequently, though, we diversified into manufacturing a wider range of audio equipment."
At present, the company offers its own distinctive take on speakers, radios, turntables and cassette players. All produced in China, its range is said to combine a vintage design aesthetic with contemporary technology.
Explaining the appeal of its classic/current approach, Basso said: "We bill what we do as 'contemporary retro with a modern twist'. With our turntables, for instance, you can save music files directly onto a USB stick and then transfer it across, giving you the old and the new fused into one.
"Overall, we are targeting a very broad market. In fact, our demographic goes all the way from the 16-year-olds who want a very basic player, right up to the 70-year-olds who are drawn by the nostalgic element. Of late, our export orders have started to pick up and we now have several buyers in both China and Hong Kong."
Another business looking to reinvent an old favourite was LightMe, a Sheffield-based start-up that had chosen this year's event to debut its range of bio-oil candles. Explaining his company's approach to this stalwart of the gift sector, Lewis Bowen, the Managing Director and Founder of the business, said: "What we offer is genuine innovation. The candle sector is expanding and we want to help it expand in the right way, so we only use bio-oils specially imported from Malaysia, which produce far less soot.
"When they're knocked over, they actually go out, making them far safer than standard candles. As they contain no wax, they're also a lot cleaner. We also contribute 5% of our profits to funding initiatives around the world that are dedicated to reducing harmful fuel emissions."
Explaining how the company meets the challenge of convincing customers to buy an eco-friendly product, Bowen said: "We pitch our range directly against standard candles. We're trying to get people to switch to a cleaner alternative without having to pay too much of a premium. We don't believe that people will make the change solely because our range is eco-friendly.
"Our candles have a unit cost of £2.50 (US$3.23), but they have a burn time of 35-40 hours. As this is of a far longer duration than normal candles, it is actually good value."
As well as its range of bio-candles, LightMe also offers a variety of lamps designed to house them. These are available in a number of different styles and colours, all designed to blend in with a wide range of different interiors.
Looking to the future, Bowen is keen to develop the company's overseas sales, saying: "At present, we only really sell in the UK and Australia and don't yet have an overseas distribution deal in place. The Asian market is one we are particularly interested in and we are keen to secure representation in the region."
Perhaps a harder sell into the Far East markets would be the range of replica weaponry and military collectibles on offer from North Yorkshire's Way of the Warrior, a subsidiary of Hill Interiors, a long-established importer of furniture and interior accessories.
Outlining the company's particular appeal, Brand Manager Mark Renton said: "While we do sell to individual collectors, we're primarily a wholesaler and largely focus on castles, museums, shops and re-enactors. We offer a very wide range of replica weaponry and associated items, including guns, rifles, swords, axes, shields and maces, as well as knives, pen-knives and replica badges."
Clearly serious about properly servicing its chosen sector, Way of the Warrior prides itself on the authenticity of its range and is often called upon to supply items to film and TV companies looking to recreate a particular period. Detailing the process involved, Renton said: "We consult with historians to ensure all of our items are a close match with the original. We're also the UK distributor for Denix, a leading Spanish militaria company with clients all around the world. In many cases, though, the items are actually manufactured in China, then imported to order."
A similarly entrepreneurial set-up was evident on the part of Animo Glass, a Norfolk-based purveyor of contemporary glassware products. Launched in 2012, the company sources its nature-themed glassware from Poland, then engraves it in the UK using a sandblasting process.
Expanding on the company's philosophy, Director Anna Gill said: "Our aim was to bring a contemporary feel to glassware and produce something that's appealing at a value-for-money price. While we can't quite compete with the supermarkets in cost terms, we haven't really aimed to.
"We actually started out producing African animals designs and then moved into UK woodland animals. We subsequently had a lot of requests for gifts suitable for the men's market, so we branched out again.
"That's how it has tended to work with regards to product development – customers have told us what they'd like to see and we have worked with our factory in Poland to produce them. It's a very organic process."
In terms of the company's preferred sales channels, Gill was clear about the company's strategy, saying: "We tend to go with independent retailers as that's very much in line with our target market. While we appreciate the benefits of dealing with the bigger department stores, that would create quite a challenge for our production resources.
"That's not to say that we are not keen to expand. In fact, I've already attended a number of US trade shows, one of which saw us secure a substantial order from an American zoo. We are also looking at Australia at the moment. Given the Brexit situation, we have decided it's time to reassess our export strategies."
Another UK company set on making its mark in the global marketplace was Lund London, a Maidstone-based specialist in home-storage gifts. At this year's show, it was particularly keen to promote its Flash storage system, which combines clear acrylics with hand-painted neon edging.
Highlighting the appeal of this new collection, Heather Darcy, a Designer with the company, said: "Last year, we launched Flash Tidy, the first in the range. We produced it in three sizes and four different colours, allowing customers to mix and match them. Basically, you can do pretty much anything with them – use them as a stationery unit or to store make-up, keys, jewellery…"
The success of the Flash Tidy led to the launch of Flash Blocco, with its thicker acrylic construction making it suitable for use as a photo frame, a pen holder or even as a housing for toilet brushes. With the two products now established, the company is confident it can build up its export side.
Addressing this particular aspiration, Darcy said: "We've already attended quite a few international trade shows. We're in Paris in the autumn and we've exhibited at several events in Germany. We're not just restricting ourselves to Europe, though, as we already have customers in 30 countries across the world."
The 2017 Home and Gift Buyers' Festival was held from 15-18 July at the Harrogate Convention Centre.
Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, Harrogate