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Sparking new ideas… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes visits Winchester and gets inspired by a Raymond Briggs retrospective, while also seeing how WH Smith has upped its licensing game.

I took myself off to Winchester this week. Nice to have a working day out and further evidence that things are starting to get back on track business wise.

The purpose of my trip to Winchester was to see an exhibition, Raymond Briggs A Retrospective. The exhibition was curated by the House of Illustration in partnership with the Hampshire Cultural Trust and staged at the Winchester Discovery Centre. It was a great opportunity to see over 100 of Raymond Briggs’ original artworks including art from The Snowman, Ethel & Ernest and Ug.

Lots of the work was from Raymond’s personal archive and it was lovely to see it coupled with his observations on his techniques and style.

The Raymond Briggs Retrospective showcased over 100 of his original artworks.
The Raymond Briggs Retrospective showcased over 100 of his original artworks.

I went along to the exhibition as I have been lucky enough to work on The Snowman and was interested to see some of the original work, but also as a market research exercise. I was interested to see how this art exhibition was staged and promoted as I see there will be more opportunities for licensing in this area.

That may sound odd when we have been in an extended period of lockdown, but I think ‘live licensing’ presents a great growth opportunity for licensing and this exhibition shows how original content is so valuable.

Interestingly, the retail outlet inside the arts centre had sold out of Raymond Briggs’ related merchandise which was good to hear – maybe they bought in low numbers, but it shows that exhibitions can create momentum for product sales.

The exhibition closed this week but would recommend that you keep an eye out for it. It is designed to be a travelling exhibition so should pop up in some other venues and it is well worth seeing, not least to get close up to such fine artwork.

WH Smith created a stand out feature in-store with a colourful selection of loose pens.
WH Smith created a stand out feature in-store with a colourful selection of loose pens.

While in Winchester I popped into the local branch of WH Smith. It is located on the high street in an old building, but has the feel of a shop that has had a recent re-plan if not an upgrade.

Winchester is a university town and has a number of schools dotted around the centre, so it was no surprise to see the front of the WH Smith shop dominated by a back to school style promotion.

Interestingly rather like the Foyles I visited last week, WH Smith seems to have leaned on suppliers to help develop branded fixtures in-store. These fixtures were combined with contemporary style display areas featuring items like non-licensed stationery such as notebooks. These fixtures had the feel of a store like Paperchase and it felt like WH Smith had made a real effort to freshen things up. The front of store was relatively licensing free with just a few items in the ranges such as Pusheen, Pepsi and Pringles pencil cases.

One stand out feature for me was a really colourful selection of loose pens – must be a lot of writing and scribbling going on in Winchester! The store also had a lot of offers on show such as buy 4 for the price of 3 on pencil case accessories.

The greeting cards range from V&A stood out well on-shelf.
The greeting cards range from V&A stood out well on-shelf.

Further into the store – which has two floors – there was a strong offering of jigsaw puzzles most of which seemed to be WH Smith own brand. A reminder of the current popularity of jigsaws.

It also had a very sizeable greeting cards department which featured a lot of licensed cards across the different genres and categories in the department. I thought the card range from V&A stood out well, in particular not least because of the volume of cards from the range in stock but also the V&A branding in the top left hand corner of the cards. This really stood out. In contrast some other cards’ top thirds didn’t work so hard in selling the licensed brand that they were based on.

WH Smith had segmented the card offer well with well defined sections by content such as Humour, by genre such as Photographic and of course by Occasion. Licensing features heavily in humour with classics such as Only Fools and Horses. The card department included related products such as party goods including foil balloons with a Minions range to the fore.

In the children’s card space there were of course lots of Age Cards including many licensed lines. It wasn’t always easy to spot your favourite character, but some Star Wars cards stood out particularly well as they were shaped and used characters like Chewbacca well.

This WH Smith branch had a well stocked children’s comic and magazine offering. This is largely filled with licensed titles, be they standalone or compilation titles. When you view the display it is clear how important cover design is – in terms of masthead, central image and features. Of course many magazines feature covermounts and these can still play a strong role in impulse selling. That said some covermount gifts actually obscure the covers and arguably may make character recognition more difficult. I also understand publishers are reviewing the use of covermounts and we will see changes in the future.

When you view the children's magazine display, it is clear how important cover design is.
When you view the children's magazine display, it is clear how important cover design is.

It is also understandable why some publishers choose to invest in point of sale promotions such as shelf strips, shelf wobblers and dispensers. It is such a crowded fixture and it is very tough to stand out. That said it was one of the tidiest children’s magazine fixtures I have seen for a while. Kudos to staff and customers.

Near the magazines and am guessing so located to encourage pick up purchase were a range of IWM construction kits including a Supermarine Spitfire kit. Licensed characters also feature on crafting magazines for example there was an ‘official’ Moon & Me pattern in Knitting & Crochet magazine. Publishers in this category have recognised that licensed characters can help drive sales and encourage consumers to switch purchase from one title to another.

The second floor in Winchester’s WH Smith must be one of WH Smith’s finest. It has a wood beam ceiling with some very grand artwork on the walls that is a nod to Winchester’s history. The second floor is largely a combination of a book and craft department, probably reflecting the fact that Winchester has a fairly large student population. It made me wonder how much freedom store managers have these days in retail to adjust their ranges to reflect the local community and their shopping needs.

I believe University of Winchester has a number of art-based courses and this branch of WH Smith is certainly catering for the art community with significant ranges from the likes of Daler-Rowney.

Character brands featured heavily in WH Smith's 'Online Worlds' category.
Character brands featured heavily in WH Smith's 'Online Worlds' category.

As noted earlier WH Smith had worked with suppliers to create standalone displays – one of these was a Ty Beanies display, while there was a wall of Top Trumps cards many of which were licensed. It was also good to see how WH Smith had signposted its book offering into key subjects and brands including Online Worlds. Character brands featured heavily here. It was also nice to see that audio books were in stock with ranges such as Dr Who on sale.

WH Smith does come in for some criticism online for the quality of the stores in terms of layout, displays and general tidiness. Judging by the Winchester shop it would seem it is making a concerted effort to smarten up and modernise the layout. This branch was easy to shop, well signed and had plenty of stock. It was good to see a lot of licensed products featuring across a range of departments.

Lidl is backing the new PAW Patrol movie in its weekly promotions magazine.
Lidl is backing the new PAW Patrol movie in its weekly promotions magazine.

I also popped into a Lidl shop this week. I missed the middle of Lidl but did pick up the weekly promotions magazine. This featured back to school offers which included a Kids Character Lunch Bag and Lunch Box Set – Harry Potter and LEGO. A stand out feature was a two page spread promoting PAW Patrol: The Movie product. Featured product included a 2 in 1 vehicle set, clogs, colouring sets and play-sets. It was a well presented offer and range. It was also linked to a competition to win a PAW Patrol Movie Cinema Screening experience. It was good to see Lidl embracing a licensed range in such a proactive way.

Finally and returning to Winchester it was so nice to be out and about – for me I love meeting people, going to events like the Raymond Briggs one and nosing around shops. I think all these kind of things help spark up ideas and make new connections. Licensing is, as we know, a people business and I hope over the next few weeks we can get back to meeting, chatting and doing business.

Also for me it means I can take more photos – you need to find a way to relax between meetings and take time off from work as well. See you soon I hope!

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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