Did Paperchase move with the times, or stay stationery?

It seems Paperchase is on the brink of administration, and for some Velveteers that’s led to a wave of nostalgia – not least because there was one over the road from our Chiswick office that some of us regularly visited.

On the one hand, we have people at Velvet who are old enough to have been avid letter writers as kids, with penpals around the world. And with lockdowns making us focus on mental health, there’s been a move to encourage letter writing or journaling to combat loneliness. 

Clearly it’s not just comms people who are avid stationery addicts who love nothing more than scribbling in quirky, high-quality journals. Beautiful stationery was, and continues to be, a massive thing, an often failproof gift.

So here’s an opportunity missed; maybe Paperchase is simply reaping its own unfortunate harvest. Over recent years it has pandered to an increasingly younger demographic, inevitably alienating customers over the age of 16 with its focus on unicorn rubbers and pineapple pens. 

Not only did it miss out on Gen-Z’s retro cravings – vinyl, cassette players, typewriters, vintage cameras et al – the stationery and craft market for young adults is huge and it’s a shame that Paperchase was unable (or unwilling) to cater to this slightly older demographic.

Nor could it compete with its other mainstay – cards. Those old school Velveteers who still send cards tend to buy them at National Trust houses, museums, on holiday and in those little antique shops – or they go online. (Moonpig’s discount codes, simple app and ability to get around the hassle of buying stamps has drastically increased its appeal in recent years.)

Put bluntly, Paperchase has had ample time to get a handle on the direction of traffic to online and you still can’t buy personalised cards on its website. What did it really expect would happen? 

Yes, Paperchase is fun. Insta-worthy notebooks (e.g. planners embroidered with phrases like ‘live your best life’) might attract some, but there is that element of cringe that disenchants more lucrative shoppers who prefer minimalist designs.

It’s also expensive. While Paperchase is a great place to browse for inspiration, people know they’ll get cheaper, similar-enough products delivered from the marketplace giants. Post Covid, it’ll only ever benefit the window shopper.

What Paperchase’s absence from our high streets represents is potentially something bigger; it’s a signal that we’re losing touch with one of our oldest, most sophisticated and tactile of communications tools: paper. 

The pandemic has forced many of us to work from home that weren’t set up for it. Consequently,  the blue screen has taken precedence over articles we once printed to proof, lists through which we drew big, fat, super-satisfactory lines and even reading a real book. You see things differently on paper than on a scroll. 

So what Paperchase represents against the backdrop of 2020 (and now 2021) may be greater than yet another shop going down the plug. We see what WFH has done to societal cohesion – people miss people and things they took for granted. 

It may well be that the new normal will look a lot like the old normal with some minor tweaks – a return to offices, telephone (rather than video) calls, and paper. But if that new normal doesn’t include Paperchase, which was never really a destination shop in the first place – maybe that’s its own fault for not moving with the times.