Clinton Cards: The shop that played its hand wrong

Don Lewin turned £500 into a huge gift-shop empire. But Clinton Cards failed to adapt to the internet age – and now may be forced to fold

When Don Lewin took £500 in savings and opened his first card shop on Epping High Street in the late 1960s, he was hoping to make enough money to fulfil his childhood dream of owning a Rolls Royce.

Click HERE to view graphic

He was the son of an east London chimney sweep and left school with no qualifications at 15. But within two decades he had become the multimillionaire kingpin of Britain's largest greetings card chain. At its height Clinton Cards – named after Lewin's eldest son – had more than 1,000 stores and a presence in virtually every major British town.

Now it faces a precarious future after it was announced yesterday that the greetings card chain would go into administration. The fate of its 8,000 employees is in doubt, as Clintons becomes the latest seemingly ubiquitous high street chain to fall victim to an inability to adapt in difficult economic times.

Since Woolworths imploded in the aftermath of 2008's credit crunch and subsequent recession, Britain's high streets have taken a beating. But the past five months have been particularly bloody.

Blacks Leisure – the owner of the Millets and Blacks camping stores – fashion chain Peacocks, lingerie retailer La Senza and video game outlet Game have all gone under since the start of the year. Peacocks, La Senza and Game were given last-minute reprieves in partial buyouts that allowed a small number of stores to remain open, but all four chains have seen their presence on the high street severely depleted.

Poor consumer confidence, high business rates, competition from supermarkets and the internet as well as an inability to adapt have created a perfect storm which has destroyed the weakest members of the retail industry. "It certainly emphasises that even familiar high street names with a widespread presence are having a hard time in the current trading conditions," said Sarah Cordey of the British Retail Consortium. "Retail is a naturally competitive industry. Even in good times some retailers will fail."

Analysts said Clinton Cards was as much a victim of its own hubris as it was a hostage to market forces. The Lewin family liked to boast that their industry was watertight because the desire to send each other cards would never go out of fashion. And they were right. But what changed was the way we go about buying cards.

Online greetings retailers such as Moonpig and Funky Pigeon – both of whom rely on infuriatingly catchy but successful television adverts – have swiftly muscled in on their competitors with cheaper prices and the ability to personalise greetings with messages and pictures.

"Clinton Cards did eventually set up their own online shop, but it was too late and they didn't do enough to promote it," said Maureen Hinton, a retail analyst at Verdict.

"Because of their television adverts, Moonpig and Funky Pigeon are at the front of consumers' minds when it comes to cards, in the way Amazon is the first stop for books and music."

Those looking for silver linings on the high street can take comfort from Clintons' main competitor, the Card Factory. Set up in the late 1990s, it has managed to thrive even against online retailers.

Last year it posted profits of more than £50m from its 500 stores. The key to its success has been that it designs, sources and prints its own cards – allowing it to make handsome profit margins despite deals such as selling seven cards for £1.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager / Development Manager - NW London - £58k + 15% bonus

£50000 - £667000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

£13000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

£40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...