Spielwarenmesse: Interview with Undercover: Stationery goes online

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Movers & shakers

Interview with Undercover: Stationery goes online

from Ulrich Texter

The digital age makes one thing abundantly clear: the retail trade is facing serious challenges. In the long term, the paper, office equipment and stationery sector too can only benefit from new sales channels and fresh ideas. So events like Spielwarenmesse® and the new stationery trade fair - Insights-X – are all the more important for generating new business. At the school backpack specialist Undercover they are convinced this is right, and you’ll see them at both fairs. We spoke to managing director Michael Fortdran.

Spielwarenmesse®: Mr Fortdran, total turnover in the German leather goods and luggage manufacturing industry rose in the first half of 2014 by 1.6 %. This can be explained by the Germans’ proverbial passion for travel. However, your product range is struggling tenaciously with the low birth rate. What are your expectations for the year ahead, for your sector in general and for Undercover in particular?

Michael Fortdran: Both the toy industry and the school and stationery sector are facing a big challenge on account of the low birth rate. We’re trying to gain some advantage with the right licence themes and trendy motifs, and to continue pinpointing what children prefer. Also we are going to continue expanding the product range within the Scooli brand and to develop new products and innovations in the school backpack and school rucksack segment. As you can see, we’ve got several strings to our bow, and we’re well prepared for the future

A penchant for backpacks is a German phenomenon, at least that’s what the experts tell us. Does that largely preclude exports then, or how do you make an impact in countries where backpack parties are unknown?

M.F.: School backpacks certainly are a German phenomenon, but the demand for the German backpack model has for many years been very high in Eastern European countries, for example Poland and the Czech Republic, and even in Russia school backpacks are very popular.
So, we’ve got our eye on the export business and we even see a lot of growth potential.

Is Spielwarenmesse® in this respect a springboard for your company to break into foreign markets? The fair is becoming more and more international from one year to the next.

M.F.: Spielwarenmesse® has always provided an outstanding platform for opening up markets abroad. Visitors to Spielwarenmesse® are not only interesting sales partners but also many are key buyers in chains abroad. This is why Spielwarenmesse® has always been of great value for business at home and abroad and, yes, for us it’s also a springboard for penetrating foreign markets.

As a specialist in licences for school backpacks, in 2014 Undercover presented its own collection for the first time. What was the reason? You’re firmly in the saddle with licences! Do you want to go more in the direction of brands and minimize your dependence on licences?

M.F.: Undercover will, of course, continue to be the licence specialist for everything to do with school. However, at various events with end consumers – backpack parties, for example, that we organize jointly with our trade partners – consumers said they would like to see classic backpacks in the Scooli brand. We responded to their wishes and, for every school year, we now put classic backpack motifs for boys and girls on the market. But Undercover has been producing for many years specially developed designs in the writing implements and stationery segment for various trade partners, so we’re familiar with this area of business.

The proportion of licence products, no-names and inexpensive backpacks is estimated to be about one third of the total market, which means that, looked at the other way round, two-thirds is in the hands of a few powerful brands. Are your own brands aimed at this slice of the cake, at least in the medium and long term?

M.F.: Our aim with our own designs is on the one hand to expand and strengthen the Scooli brand to take account of the wishes of our customers and on the other to secure market share in a shrinking market.

Please explain. Why do the designs always have classic themes that are varied every year – cars and dinosaurs for boys, for example, and princesses and animals for girls. Are there things in life that never really change?

M.F.: Yes, fortunately there are things that don’t basically change, and that’s the reason why a future without classic themes like dinosaurs, cars and princesses is unthinkable. The most used key words when searching online for backpacks are, for example, horses and dinosaurs – which means with these classics there’s not much chance of getting it wrong.

School backpacks are now selling for well over the 200 euros mark. Apart from ergonomics and safety, what is the direction of the trend? Towards exclusive products or to less expensive models?

M.F.: From our perspective, quality, ergonomics and safety continue to be the priorities, but we’re rather critical of prices round 200 euros. Our Scooli school backpacks offer a fair price-performance ratio in the middle price range, which means our customers get trendy designs of outstanding quality at a fair price.

Are the so-called backpackers, that combine the features of a trekking rucksack and those of a school backpack, similarly causing you a problem? A number of suppliers specifically advertise the ergonomic benefits of these backpacker models.

M.F.: No, these so-called backpackers are not a problem – quite the contrary. This segment is in fact very interesting and is the link between the primary school and the secondary school. So it was a natural step for us to get involved and to put on the market ready for the Easter trade our new growth-adaptable school rucksack called “TWIXTER”.

In recent years there’s been a clear shift in purchasing behaviour in the direction of online, in the case of both toys and backpacks. Many manufacturers have reacted with selection products or with supplementary terms and conditions. What strategy have you adopted?

M.F.: For many years, we’ve been working successfully alongside the bricks-and-mortar trade with a variety of partners in the online sector. You can’t imagine a world now without online retailing as a sales channel, and currently the trend is even for multi-channel. In other words, many of our partners are running both fixed-location and online businesses. This why we have to respond to this development and offer a variety of solutions. It could be exclusive products and motifs or original sets.

You’ve announced a series of new licences for 2015, including Mia & Me. At the same time, you’re expanding your own design segment. As we discovered, you’ve got something else in the pipeline. What else can the visitors to Spielwarenmesse® expect to see?

M.F.: As well as new licences like Mia & Me, Violetta and Minions, we’ll also be presenting our own new designs in the school backpack segment. For boys there’s a cool dinosaur design, for example, that simply has to be there in the upcoming dinosaur film year. Our customers can look forward not only to school backpacks and writing materials but also to some new painting sets for tiny artists that we’re presenting at Spielwarenmesse®  for the first time. But the real trade fair innovation is, as I mentioned earlier, our school rucksack “TWIXTER“.


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