Robstine Stamps is one of the leading stamp retailers in the UK, having developed our own niche of fine used stamps. How did we get to this point and where will our development take us next?
early days 1981-85
Christine and I started in 1981 by making packets of stamps for tourist shops in London and Windsor. It was not long before we heard about Stamp Fairs. Over the next four years we attended various Fairs around London and the South-east while our stock was growing slowly. Originally we offered British stamps, but it did not take us long to realise everyone else had British stamps, so we needed to offer something different.
Most of the customers we met at Fairs were asking for fine used stamps and we could see there was a gap in the market for European stamps. So we decided to offer European fine used stamps without any mint or covers. We also had a high level of demand for Australia, Canada and USA. We attended a number of Stamp Fairs in the south-east with varied results.
FINDING OUR FEET 1985-90
I was travelling a lot to the continent at this time and gradually we built up a network of stamp suppliers across Europe. This enabled us to offer several issues that are hard to find in the UK and it was easy to re-stock as these suppliers came to know what we were looking for. By this stage, we had a stock of most European countries and so we began to create price lists to send to customers. Our postal sales date from this time, although it took some time to develop in scale.
The next big leap forward was in 1991-92. This was when we finally went full time in the stamp business. It had numerous consequences. We attended a larger number of stamp fairs. Finding the organisation and publicity of many fairs to be substandard, we launched Christine Borwick Fairs, our own fairs circuit. We were in a better position to control our own destiny. We drastically increased our expenditure on advertising in the stamp magazines and this benefited our fairs and our postal sales. We became regular stand holders at Stampex (until it changed venue to Islington) and attended a number of big events in Germany, Holland, Switzerland and even the USA.
Progress during the 1990s was rapid. Our stock grew in size and coverage and as we tried more venues for fairs we increased our customer base. We stopped attending overseas fairs in 1995 as the results were not as good as expected. On the other hand we travelled around much of the UK including Bristol, the Midlands, Manchester, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Results at British stamp fairs were excellent and progress was continuous. For a while, we also offered postcards and phone cards. Phone cards were good business for about eighteen months, but the market died with the universal usage of the mobile and the plethora of cards issued. Postcards are a steadier market, but I found it difficult to find really new stock. Moreover there was too much to do with stamps!
A CHANGE OF DIRECTION 1997-2005
Another major innovation, starting about 1997, was the Solo Fair. Having a large and diverse stock and regular customers in many parts of the country, we were able to set up a series of these events and make them work. These effectively replaced our participation in the larger fairs in London and abroad, which were very expensive to attend and by no means as good as they were cracked up to be!
In September 1999, we launched our web site, in advance of many stamp dealers. Our web listings have been useful for large numbers of customers. They show one of the major stocks of fine used stamps in the UK, listed mainly by individual items, not in sets. We appreciate collectors want to find odd values so we cater for this.
Much of our trading was still done at stamp fairs with a little help from postal sales. By now, many of our customers had known us for years and it was always nice to see familiar faces at the venues we visited. Many of the fairs we attended were those organised by us, so we ensured there was sufficient publicity to promote the events.
A STEP BACKWARDS 2006-11
Trading was not so easy for a period. Christine wanted to stop organising fairs and I had to find some new venues at which to trade. Stamp fairs generally were beginning to suffer from reduced attendances and most of the other venues I visited did not hold promise. We started having technical problems with our website in 2010 which did not help with our price lists. They were getting out of date.
In September 2011, disaster struck as Christine was diagnosed with cancer and it was soon apparent that her illness was terminal. She fought bravely against the illness and remained positive throughout. Sadly she passed away on 24 October 2012. There is not much more one can say except she is sorely missed and I am grateful for all the good wishes I have received on her behalf.
A NEW START 2012-16
During Christine’s illness I carried on working when I was not visiting her. At the start of 2012, I decided our website needed refreshing. We had suffered from technical problems particularly in the summer of 2011. With the help of our website provider, work has gone on to overcome these difficulties. Since February 2012 I have been able to update the website regularly and rapidly. One of the benefits has been that postal customers who use the site can be 98% sure that what is listed is actually in stock. Since then we have made various small improvements to the website and it has helped in expanding the postal sales.
Gradually the increased effort on my part, aided by the help of my computer expert, has benefited the business. Since the spring of 2015, postal sales have regularly been at record levels and are now much more important than sales at fairs. I have been able to secure new supplies and I have expanded the range of countries in stock. One of the greatest additions has been the range of fine used Commonwealth material now available. I have many new contacts in different countries from whom to obtain supplies.
CONTINUED EXPANSION 2017-19
During this period, sales at stamp fairs increased greatly again and a “duff” fair was a thing of the past. This was greatly helped by a maturing stock of Commonwealth stamps. Customers who had given me a miss started coming to me, realising I was now offering this material. My UK based wholesaler was now supplying me with top quality Commonwealth collections and accumulations as well as stocks from other unusual countries, such as Japan, Yemen, Latin America and French Colonies.
The postal business also grew because the new stock was more visible. I increased my advertising in the three stamp magazines and the relevant SG catalogues. My costs grew but it more than paid for itself.
In March 2020, we were all taken aback by this new disease and the consequences. For a few months we were in lockdown and had to think of new ways to pass the time. Luckily for me, many people found stamp collecting to be an ideal pastime while trapped at home. It only took a few weeks for my sales to increase exponentially and I was working from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. most days just keeping pace with demand. From time to time I was able to process new stock which always helps.
It became clear that social distancing would affect stamp fairs, even if they returned. I took the decision in the summer of 2020 to give up attending stamp fairs altogether and I have not regretted that decision. Of course I will miss the social side of fairs, with customers and other dealers, but it will not be the same. I had been at fairs for almost 40 years, so it was time for others to take over! Even now I do not have the time available due to increased postal demand, so that has been a big change.
The level of sales experienced in April-July of 2020 was never going to continue, but I have been pleasantly surprised that income is still higher than pre-Covid with fairs and postal sales combined. It is time to make changes to the website, including the closure of www.robstineextra.com. I have trimmed the site somewhat so the lists are in prime position. I have more ideas on how to progress in the next months and we will see where it takes us!
Robin Borwick, May 2022