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.

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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.

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