A shop that is spacious, airy and brightly lit, and now immediately presents before the visitor the range of services.
A person walking into the shop can do so for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are simply curious, having seen the displays of coins, medals and stamps in the window. It could be a collector needing to fill one or two gaps, and wondering if Stanley Gibbons or coin dealer A.H. Baldwin’s can help, or maybe a collector with more specialised needs wanting to discuss a purchase in a more private setting. It could also be someone wanting a new album, pages, catalogue or other accessories.
Around the shop, display frames highlight notable items on offer. On the left is the stamp sales area, the friendly, helpful staff having at arm’s length a large selection of the Gibbons’ stock. Plastic screens had necessarily to separate staff and customer. Here, many a gap in a ‘wants list’ can be successfully filled, or a single stamp that for so long has proved elusive can be added to a collection.
To the right, and in a central display, is a wide range of accessories, again with helpful staff willing to show all on offer and provide advice. The albums range from pre-printed examples, notably for Great Britain, Guernsey, Isle of Man and Jersey, to those with blank pages, housed in the tried-and-tested spring-back or 22-ring binders.
There are stockbooks and mounts, including the traditional hinges, plus corner mounts, and of course tweezers. Magnifiers, watermark detectors and ultra-violet lamps are also on display and can be tested before purchase. Nor can one forget the excellent and indispensably range of Gibbons’ catalogues (increasingly popular in digital format), or take the opportunity to pick up the latest edition of Gibbons Stamp Monthly.
The ground floor also houses client rooms where collectors wishing for a more private viewing and discussion with experts before purchase can do so.
However, the new 399 is more than a ground-floor shop, and visitors are welcome to roam. On the first floor is found the coin and medal sales undertaken by Baldwin’s. This floor also has an area overlooking the Strand, housing display cases highlighting the rich history of Gibbons and the hobby through a wealth of fascinating artefacts. In addition, bookcases house many reference works, while one wall will host a variety of event, from special displays to video projections.
In the basement area is the home of Stanley Gibbons Auctions in which, at the time of sales, viewing and the actual auction will be conducted. However, at other times the area can have many uses, from displays and exhibits to receptions and talks.
The space provides an excellent opportunity for societies and other organisations to host special events. All such events will be widely publicised, not least through the shop window, thereby grabbing the attention of those who are passing along the Strand.
There was talk of Stanley Gibbons moving to new premises. How important was it for SG to remain on the Strand?
Having been on the Strand for well over 100 years, it is rightly seen as our home, so our preference was always to be able to remain here. However, it would have been remiss of us not to look at other potential locations in and around central London. In practice, we found two serious alternatives to staying at 399, one of which was also on the Strand, but in the end, we decided to stay where we were and I am pleased that we did.
What sort of customer do you hope to attract with the new-look shop?
The new building – it is more than just a shop – is designed to be something for everyone. Our aim was to create somewhere that very clearly sets itself apart from other stamp shops. Somewhere which is unashamedly a high-quality shopping experience but also one where absolutely everybody feels welcome; whether they have £5 or £50,000 to spend. This is a very difficult balance to create but I sincerely hope we have managed it. Of course, the building itself is only half of it. It only works if everybody at SG is focused on making people feel welcome when they come to visit us.
Does the refurbishment show a level of commitment and optimism by the company to itself and also to the hobby in general?
Absolutely. We’ve mentioned many times our belief in the potential that SG has within the hobby and our willingness to put the time, effort and money required into realising that potential. This is the most tangible example of us doing exactly that. But we also believe that SG has a role to play in bringing the hobby to a wider audience and we hope that the new building helps us to do that.
Did the shop need to evolve in order to reflect a change in the way SG is operating?
I think if we go back to my previous point about the potential of both the business within the hobby and the hobby itself, we would not be able to realise both of those ambitions with the building the way it was.
We have tried to change the layout of the non-customer facing areas as well in order to make them more efficient and make it easier to provide a great service but, although areas of focus may shift over time, the essence of what the business does is unchanged.
SG is now the largest philatelic shop in Europe. What does the extra space mean for the customer experience?
Strictly speaking, in terms of square footage, the overall customer-facing area is not too dissimilar to where it was before, but the layout is much more effective and the space is better used. The main difference is an ability for customers to freely walk through all three floors and a much more proactive use of both the basement area – outside of the times it is used for auctions – and the first floor. So although the floor space is similar, from a practical perspective those who come to visit us can probably experience more than twice as much actively used space as before. This has allowed us to include a far greater range of displays, exhibits and indeed different ambiences in different areas with the aim of making it a really memorable experience.
We’ve combined that with much better lighting, more information around the items and exhibits on display and a more welcoming feel, including casual seating areas for our customers. We want people to feel comfortable spending a significant amount of time here.
The shop now boasts exhibition areas. Is 399 now more than just a place where one buys?
Absolutely. As I said, we want people to really enjoy coming here and to feel like than can spend time learning about the history of SG and the hobby while having the opportunity to see some wonderful stamps and various artefacts and treasures.
The challenge for us, and one that everyone at SG knows is important, is to ensure we keep changing our displays and exhibits over time. We want to give people plenty of reasons to keep coming back to visit us.
It’s also a location which is now much better suited to offer events of different kinds. At the current time, this is somewhat redundant – as were our plans for a grand opening – but as and when circumstances allow, we will try to make much more use of this, including giving talks about various areas of philately and opening up the building to societies and others.
What kind of events are planned to take place at the shop and how many?
As I mentioned, we had hoped to have a grand opening but coronavirus put paid to that as it has to so many things. Until there is a little more certainty about how things may develop and indeed about how comfortable people are in attending certain types of events, we will keep our plans under review.
In normal times, it was our vision that the building would host a variety of events on an extremely regular basis, not only those put on by SG and Baldwin’s but also others within the industry and indeed from elsewhere – the first floor overlooking the Strand is, in particular, a wonderful location.
The Stanley Gibbons Archive is now a key feature of the shop, bringing a museum-like quality to 399. Does this reflect the history of SG or will it celebrate philately in general?
As with other areas of the building, we will change what we exhibit and themes around it over time but it is our desire to do both. A good example of this is the current display that highlights some major moments in the life of SG, but also has a range of items on display showing how philately has tried to engage younger audiences in the past.
While we have a lot of material in our archive, we are always keen to work with others who may wish to help put a display together or have single items of interest whether they are individuals or an organisation. Prior to coronavirus, we had been in touch with The Postal Museum among others and we are hopeful that at some point in the not too distant future some of these conversations can be restarted.
Was it difficult to create a modern shop which embraces new technology while still maintaining a sense of history?
Combining modern technology with the best bits of the traditional elements of a hobby is an interesting challenge. In the new building, we have used modern technology sparingly but we have utilised it where we feel it improves the customers’ experience. The most obvious is the flat screen TV on the ground floor, which gives a lot more versatility and can be adapted for events, themes, etc, but it extends to things like the viewing lamps in our client rooms, which are very much at the more modern end of the spectrum. These sit side-by-side with books from the 17th century, Victorian furnishings and exhibits from throughout the history of philately.
We have, like many, also learnt from the changing working practices of the last few months and there are ways in which we will be making the most of the opportunities modern technology brings.
Are there any other changes can we expect to see from the company in the future?
Plenty. One of the main aspects of SG now is a desire to keep getting better and to keep evolving. That primarily involves two things: improving what we offer our customers and adding to what we offer our customers. Not all are as visible as the redevelopment of a 13,000 sq ft building in central London but there is more to come.