It’s been a while since I had been to the Spring Fair at the NEC Birmingham so I was curious to see how things had changed, particularly as far as Housewares, my earlier career sector, was concerned.
Having been to the Frankfurt Ambiente fair over the previous few years, what struck me forcefully was how much smaller this ‘International’ Fair feels by comparison. Hall 1 is a prime example of how much has changed since the first Spring Fair in 1976. Then the Wedgwood group, as it then was, Royal Doulton, Denby, Spode, Royal Worcester, Dartington and Stuart Crystal dominated a Hall packed with table top brands. Today names like Hammersley, Midwinter, Crown Staffordshire, Masons Ironstone, Crown Derby, Johnson Bros are either defunct or their current owners dont feel it is worth the investment to present them. Surviving names such as Waterford Wedgwood and Royal Doulton reflect the priorities of their US Private equity owners with a much reduced footprint, while Spode and Royal Worcester have fallen into the warm embrace of the Portmeirion Group. It is the Portmeirion group, along with a dynamic Churchill China and Denby, who appear now to be today’s standard bearers for an industry in danger of being marginalised in the UK. Villeroy & Boch still stands as a lonely representative of the great, innovating, European brands. A slightly worrying example of badge engineering in the style of the late and unlamented British Leyland is the appearance of a collection of designs by the late Eduardo Paolozzi which are pale reflections of a stunning set of pop art collectors plates by the same designer produced by Wedgwood in the late 1960’s.
Portmeirion Group in particular now look like a group in good shape with a clear balance between its collection of brands whereas last year at Frankfurt their stand looked confused and undefined. Churchill, having added the Jamie Oliver license from the collapse of Royal Worcester plus its investment in popular designers like Cath Kidston and Jeff Banks and new design in general, has grown in market reach and impact.
Hall 1 today swamps these surviving islands of the tabletop industry with a plethora of wholesalers, distributors and more generally food related brands such as Typhoon, Mason Cash, Kitchencraft, La Cafetiere, Bodum and Riedel. Times move on and there are hopeful signs that the UK tabletop industry is finding new directions and slowly emerging from the ashes finding new distribution and ways of exciting today’s consumers.
The disappearance of some key independent tabletop retailers such as Stockwell China Bazaar and Church’s of Northampton is pushing the UK distribution towards the department store and internet channels as had already happened in the US by the 90’S, albeit for different reasons. Perhaps this is why Halls such as 6 and 7 focussing on Home Gifts are buzzier and more varied recognising that consumers when they are out shopping are pursuing it as a leisure activity where impulse purchase is more the norm.
All of which leaves me with the feeling that if I were a bricks and/or clicks retailer I would be better served by Frankfurt or even Paris rather than the increasingly parochial feel of the NEC.