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Supporting small businesses: Pencil Me In

11 mins read

Pencil Me In is an award-winning stationery shop based in Elgin, in the North of Scotland. The business was founded and is run by entrepreneur and stationery enthusiast, Sarah Holmes.

Sarah has managed to build up a successful business that has continued to thrive despite the challenges that Brexit and the pandemic have presented. Originating as a small shop on a shoestring budget in Manchester, the business has evolved into a well-loved business in Elgin, drawing in more than 10,000 followers on Instagram. It has been featured on STV News and Channel 4, and has worked alongside the Scottish indie band, Frightened Rabbit.

The Pandemic and Brexit

Like many businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Pencil Me In has had to drastically change in order to encourage customers to continue shopping with “as few clicks as possible.” When Sarah saw what was happening in other countries, the Pencil Me In team began loading everything onto the website.

Sarah says that running a business online and in-person is a completely “different kettle of fish” that has posed numerous problems. Compared to customers selecting and paying for their product in-store before leaving happy; the online shop proves much more time consuming as Sarah and her employee, Claire, have to pick out, wrap and post every order.

Sarah has been keen to support other small businesses and her suppliers during the difficult period, with Brexit and the pandemic working in conjunction to smother whole industries. While bigger companies have been able to delay payments and “dictate terms” on supplier invoices, Sarah has been sure to pay them as soon as possible in order to “keep the money moving.” Another way Sarah tried to help was continuing to order products from suppliers, even placing significant orders, as it “impacts the chain.”

“The second lockdown has been much more damaging on a creative basis,” Sarah stated, with fewer new releases from suppliers. Though new products have dramatically decreased, Pencil Me In have tried to diversify the products they offer where they can in order to keep customers interested.

Thankfully, the raised awareness of the importance of supporting small businesses has seen many experiencing “one of the best Christmases ever.” 2020 sales proved to be more successful for Pencil Me In compared to previous years. Sarah credits this to the pandemic, which has acted as a “wake up call for people to shop locally.”

Yet, Brexit has limited Pencil Me In’s customer base. Whilst they previously sent products to the EU, tariffs have made the charges unwieldy for many customers.

Though Pencil Me In does order a few products from the EU, the businesses’ ethos of supporting local creators has meant that the damage done in this area has been relatively small compared to other businesses that are wholly reliant on EU manufacturers and suppliers.

Credit: Pencil Me In

Pencils with power

Within a month of the Elgin premises opening in 2016, Sarah invested in a pencil printing machine that she insists has “paid for itself a million times over.” Indeed, the machine has allowed Pencil Me In to evolve, creating a wholesale side of the business that enables customers to have their own phrases and words custom printed. Customers can choose from 8 foil colours and 19 pencil colours, thereby creating personalised stationery – and even merchandise.

After gifting the band members of Frightened Rabbit pencils with the lyrics of their song “My Backwards Walk,” the group had a shopping spree at the shop and then negotiated a collaboration with Pencil Me In, resulting in a limited-edition merchandise collection. After the devastating news of frontman Scott Hutchison’s suicide, Pencil Me In worked with the band again to raise money for the charity set up in Scott’s honour, ‘Tiny Changes.” Overall, they were able to raise over £1000.

Awards

In the last few years, the stand-out business has managed to garner the attention of STV news and on Channel 4’s ‘Steph Packed Lunch,’ resulting in a “complete explosion of sales.” Sarah was also awarded the Moray Business Women’s Member of Inspiration award. She said that award made her feel “seen for the first time.” Even when she isn’t on the shop floor, Sarah can be found working away behind the scenes and clearly, all her work has been paying off.  She spoke about how amazing it has been, “coming out of last year in such a strong position and being recognised for what I’ve done with my business.”

Credit: Pencil Me In

Making the cut

When deciding what products make it onto the shop floor, or indeed the website, Sarah looks to the businesses’ core values. Every product must be “practical by design,” good quality and a fair price.

Wherever possible, Pencil Me In aims to be plastic-free, championing sustainable alternatives. By offering paper bags and ‘naked cards’, (shown in the picture above) which don’t have the usual cellophane wrap, “customers really responded to it” and allowed the business to “tap into that [sustainable] market.” The business also tries to stock products from the UK, supporting local manufacturers and cutting down on transportation emissions. As a smaller business, Pencil Me In is “so nimble” and therefore able to adapt quickly and easily to be more environmentally friendly.

Getting into business: what you need to know

When it comes to business advice, Sarah is adamant that anyone looking to start and run a business should “know your values!” She insists that by following this mantra, every decision is guided in a way that feeds into the brand that you are trying to build. On top of that, Sarah encourages people to get comfortable with numbers and familiar with your expenses. “There’s a great chapter in James Watt’s book ‘Business for Punks,” for those who don’t know how to get started.

It’s also important not to get disheartened if certain things don’t pan out as you expect. Throughout their time, Pencil Me In has tried numerous endeavours, including customised wish lists to make shopping for presents easier and a gift-wrapping service. Whilst not all of them pay off, Sarah looks at each experience as a learning curve.

Credit: Pencil Me In

Finally, Sarah recommends business owners to “build a little network of support that you can ask for advice.” When approaching people, go in with the mindset to make friends, “rather than giving them the hard sell!” Sarah does note that sometimes you need to visit a lot of networking events (online and in-person) as it “can take a while to find your crowd,” but it’s important to persevere. As well as getting to know people, Sarah highlighted the benefit of events in advertising her business saying, “I don’t care if we sell anything, I just want people to see what we do.” After all, “word of mouth is golden.”

Social media

Realising that she enjoyed seeing Behind the Scenes of other businesses, Sarah has taken the same approach with the business’ Instagram page. Customers can see everything from pencils being made, the newest products on the shelf and orders being prepped for postage.

The Pencil Me In account also includes in-depth stories on some of their products, including one of Sarah’s favourites, the goal diary! So if you’re missing the experience of going to a shop and leafing through that new notebook, Sarah has you covered.

Sarah has also founded and spearheaded the #myshoplife Instagram challenge which has been running since April 2017, in order to allow independent shops to build up a “like-minded” community. Sarah is keen to expand this project further within the next year and is currently brainstorming ideas to make the project even bigger and better. The challenge encourages participants to post stories based on prompts such as “Lockdown silver-linings”, “favourite shopfront” and “we all make mistakes.” The prompts allow businesses to share their funny stories, advice and even big up fellow independent shops.

In the next year, Pencil Me In has a lot to look forward to; new floors, new packaging and plans for an expansion of wholesale items. And hopefully, we will all begin to see things return to normal following the pandemic this year, remembering that small businesses continue to rely on our support to survive and thrive.

Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are coming up soon, so if you want to see what Pencil Me In has on offer, you can find them here at https://pencilmeinshop.co.uk/

Featured image credit: Pencil Me In

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