1. Which model of Filofax has been the most popular model/size in say the last 1-2 years?
If you ignore the individual colour variations then we’ve sold Finsburys the most (boring) with Maldens, Metropols and since the price reduction Finchleys. At the top end we’ve done well with the Osterleys and most of the croc print variations while the Enigma was, is and always will be something of an enigma (though not as catastrophic as the Swarwovski or the pocket zip-around hard clamshell special edition they brought out around five years ago – I’ve erased its name from my memory but I am sure a Philofaxy friend will remember; we ordered two of those and eventually gave the last one away in a competition to a man who said he was going to use it as an ashtray.
2. What size of Filofax is the most popular in the range?
Still Personal but closely followed by Pocket and A5 these days. Very little A4 and increasingly fewer Minis (or organisers for people with no friends as we call them). Deskfax diary sales are still quite strong and we have one packet of M2 inserts that I shall probably put away in the archive (ha ha – if only).
The M2 is an awkward subject for us as we know that Filofax brought it out to complement (i.e. steal) a piece of the Mulberry mini market (as they had successfully done a few years earlier with their Mini organisers); we sold Mulberry lines at the time and managed to get some ‘inside info’ from Mulberry that they had big plans for that size and we’re going to run a big, impressive PR campaign in support. We passed this information on to our Filofax friends only to find out subsequently that Mulberry had decided to change the ring mechanism, got cold feet and then ditched the product completely in true fashionista style. So there was no market to steal and the M2 was doomed before it launched!
3. I see you have been in business since 1987, how do today's customers compare to those of 25 years ago?
Most of our customers these days we only meet in cyberspace or at the end of a phone (and vice versa) but they’re younger, more feminine and in the shop we have many more sales where the customer spends their whole time on the mobile phone arranging their social life or babysitter problems while we try to interpret their semaphore gesticulations and hold their coffee for them.
All the traditional users of the Filofax when we started (military, church, teacher, film-maker) have fallen away as their specialist inserts have disappeared; we miss the heady days of the Target Grouping Range Card insert and the Lens Angles 16mm/35mm & Super 16mm Data laminated insert card. On the plus side, our customers have always had money to spend; a recession in the City is not people with less money it’s just less people with money. The customers in Bow Lane are either in a desperate hurry, squeezing everything into a lunch hour, or relaxed because they’re ‘away from their desk’ wandering around the City doing a bit of shopping – those are the most enjoyable parts of the day because you can have a chat and really try to give the kind of service that is helpful and informative.
I think there’s been a huge shift in the relationship between the customer and the retailer – the customer used to be nervous of the retailer but now the retailers are nervous of the customers – are they happy? what are they going to tell their 20,000 followers? how much of a discount are they going to ask for? when are they going to bring the item back? Generally, I think it’s a change for the better. I think good shops and bad shops are easier to spot – we decided last year to use our Amazon rating as our major reference because our customers are nowadays much more likely to trust another customers experience than any claims we make for ourselves!
4. What changes have you seen in that time?
The disappearance of cash (boo) and cheques (hurrah).
The increased importance of brands and their identity. We generally don’t take a risk on me-too products any more unless they are really offering something different.
The inexorable increase in costs (rent is up five times from the 80s and our annual rates bill is up almost ten times and to top it all we have to pay over £1 to get a bag of rubbish collected! grrr).
We are now surrounded by coffee shops and mobile phone shops – but can’t get a good signal.
We never see a policeman or an H&S Inspector or a VAT Inspector – we do get the occasional friendly visit from Trading Standards Authority and the man from the Performing Right Society hasn’t come and stood in the shop to make a note of the music that we play since Yaz was at number one!
Quality control has been passed by the suppliers to the retailer. You can barely make a carriage free order from a supplier for less than £400. We don’t see reps or get much interaction with most of our suppliers (Filofax are an honourable exception). We’re supposed to be living in more environmentally conscious times but some of the packaging waste on our major brands is getting more excessive to the point of criminality; look at the new Montblanc refill packaging and weep!
More positively, I would say that everyone is generally a bit friendlier when dealing face to face; there’s less of a class system in the City than there used to be and there’s more respect for some of the less-paid workers in honourable professions like retail ha ha!
People appreciate humour more – it’s needed more than ever to balance the madness.
We’ve had boom periods and more than our fair share of close-to-bust moments (thankfully not recently). I actually prefer trading in a recession as everyone’s expectations are more realistic and there’s generally a better and more supportive relationship between supplier and retailer; to balance some of my earlier Montblanc criticism I would say that their UK management has always been very supportive (not reducing terms when our business was reduced) and we consider ourselves to be in a proper mutually-beneficial partnership with Filofax and very lucky to have Lisa, Simon and Carole from the company as our friends and business colleagues.
5. Twenty five years in any industry is a long time, how do you keep yourself motivated?
Personally, and apart from the Bob Cratchett requirement to make enough money to provide some kind of a Christmas for my wife and three boys, I would say that I have an obsession for trying to find best solutions – the shop atmosphere that will make my staff and the customers comfortable, the products that will get them excited, the correct balance between investment and profit – when there is one. Retail is addictive because it’s a world of continuous and instant feedback – every sale feels like some sort of accreditation, each unsold item like a child of yours that nobody likes. There are weekly results, monthly patterns and there’s the cycle of the retail year…
January – Too busy to think about anything than selling everything we can to turn stock into money and back into the ‘right’ stock.
February – Trade shows mmm. We have the last shopping rush of the season in Valentine’s Day and then we’re scratching around for new lines and ideas to try and prise money out of fatigued customers.
March – Most of the bills have been paid from Xmas (VAT etc) – bank account and energy levels at a verrry low ebb. Start watching ‘The Only Way Is Essex’ and thinking about dusting off that old film script.
April – Enviously eyeing up the queues at the chocolate shops. New organisers dribble in from Filofax when we really need a big Spring promotion.
May – Is the air-conditioning going to survive the summer? Too many Bank Holidays draining away all the sales momentum. New autumn lines from Paul Smith & Vivienne Westwood – eek!
June – Most of the new organisers in now from Filofax – all the colour needs good weather to feel right. Stifling heat or persistent rain – retailers hate any extreme of weather; we love non-descript mild and cloudy days.
July – Closer to Xmas than not for the first time in the year – hope springs eternal. Start updating the Filofax diaries in the binders.
August – Seen most of the product ideas for Xmas – beginning to place some large orders. Extended credit order from Filofax (buy now, pay December). Seeds of hope beginning to sprout.
September – Bank Holiday generally wipes out the first week. Online action begins to hot up. Can we match Amazon prices? Normally some stock surprises from Filofax. Everyone back from their holidays. Pace of life increasing.
October – Last minute gambles on some fun gifts. Suppliers beginning to offer deals on unsold stock. Nervous laughter in our stock room as the boxes come in.
November – The most difficult month of the year; either the calm before the storm or the calm before the calm – whatever it’s quiet, too quiet. Normally we drag out our best online discount code to try and pull some Xmas spending forward and reduce the stock concerns.
December – Every day feels like a week, but every week rushes past in a blink. Generally we get a sense early in the month what the final result will be. Please God no snow! Then suddenly everyone is in the shop, everyone is on the phone, blink and there’s another ten or twenty orders. Madness. Crowds. Alcohol fuelled purchases. Goodwill to all men. Peace on earth. Who are these strangers? Ah yes, my family. Sleep Christmas Day. Enjoy Boxing Day and then back to work. Still crowds but slightly less goodwill…
The reality is that despite all the repetition from year to year you never quite end up where you were and lessons learned and technique sharpened can often be irrelevant or actually backfire on you; but the process itself can be wonderfully enjoyable and stimulating. As a small business owner I’ve found myself having to learn and understand a huge amount in a wide variety of areas and the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve shared are hugely stimulating and rewarding. Every day is different and the memory of working in environments where every day was the same still spurs me on some 25 years later!
6. Tell us about 5 unusual facts about City Organiser we might not know already.
- We sold (very) up-market sex toys for five years in the 1990s! It turned out that we were more desperate than our customers and so we removed the batteries and settled back into more conventional lines. I don’t miss it but I used to get a vicarious pleasure from going to the trade shows and having earnest conversations about revs per minute etc etc…
- One year our Filofax rep thought we would sell the unused diaries they had given us to update the binders (strictly forbidden for some unknown reason!) so he surprised us with an unexpected visit and spent the day cutting up the diaries with a dodgy pair of scissors. We didn’t offer him tea.
- When the Filofax shop first opened in Conduit St we were invited to a special opening event at which the MD of the time opened the ultra-expensive ‘animal-skins’ Filofax cabinet to show us what had been made from poor snakes, crocodiles, ostriches and the like. Our tour went on, the cabinet was left unlocked and all the binders were nicked!
- In the early years of the shop and before emails we had a visit from a Nigerian Bishop who asked whether he could leave a substantial sum of money ‘behind the counter’ as a line of credit against future purchases. We agreed. We never saw him again and to this day we have no idea whether he was genuine, whether he died or will still come back one day.
- We have one of the limited edition (200 or 500) Filofaxes made from reindeer skins recovered from the two hundred year old wreck of a Danish trading ship and sold in 1988 in support of the RNLI. It’s in a safety deposit box in a bank. Not because it’s especially valuable but because I can be pretty disorganised!
7. Where do you see Filofax in say 5-10 years’ time...
I think we’re seeing the beginnings of a major split in the Filofax offering – based on the declining sales of the current inserts. There will still be traditional ring mechanism organisers but a larger range of more traditional notebook covers and all the fills may be as basic as different colours of ruled notepaper (diaries, address sheets and everything else as an optional extra); I think they’d like to invade some of the Moleskine territory but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them fall out of bed with W H Smiths. They have the same ‘brand’ challenge as a pen company like Parker, trying to generate mass market sales while still retaining their aspirational identity. It’s a very difficult trick to pull off and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them split into different brand identities.
I think Filofax will continue with their move towards the fashion industry with smaller runs geared towards the two fashion seasons (Spring & Autumn) and more of the manufacturing will come out of the UK. I think will buy a second and larger pen company, give up on the briefcases and men generally, continue to flirt with the electronic market, have a few more stabs at the yoof market and generally move towards the arty community and away from the office.
I think the current management is more minded towards innovation and there could be some ‘out-of-the-blue’ products sooner rather than later (nudge, nudge etc). I hope they’re will be some grand follies (I still remember with affection the £99 hole puncher) but that we don’t stock too many!
8. What pens prove the most popular with Filofax users?
We’re still looking – any suggestions welcome! Twenty five years ago it really had to be a Cross but the fit was so tight that the cap of the pen used to come off as you tried to prise it out of the loop. With the elasticated loops (and we’re told that all the organisers are going to have these) there’s a lot more choice and my personal favourite would be a Lamy twin or tri pen (metal not plastic). We hoped for years that Montblanc would bring out a range that was compatible but when they did (the mini or Mozart) it was too small for most people to hold comfortably. We’re always surprised by how many of the Filofax own-brand pens we sell and it’s a shame that there aren’t more inserts suitable for fountain pen writing. Pen technology may eventually give us a good flat pen that will stand a bit of bending but we’re not holding our breath!
The Times Friday 10 June 1988
Thank you Andy a great insight and also very amusing... never a dull moment!
Before we finished Andy asked me to remind you all of the discount code that runs until the end of April which is andy15 which will get you 15% of your order, put the promo code in at the check out when you visit the City Organiser website.