As a genuine supporter of independent businesses, I tend to look for shops that use and abuse creativity to present their products. Browsing the Internet can be a good way of finding those unique shops and services.
That was my experience with Pennychoo, an online shop that sells vintage-inspired greeting cards made, with true passion, by Sue Lee, an experienced graphic designer, and illustrator based in South West London.
Pennychoo is an example of a successful e-commerce business that is also focused on high-quality customer service. That was how I felt when I approached Sue Lee in my first purchase and that was just confirmed in this great interview with her.
MT: How and when did you start to be interested in illustration?
Sue Lee: As soon as I could sit up and hold a pencil! My mum tells me that as a toddler, she could put me in the middle of a room, go away, come back later and I wouldn’t have moved an inch. I was quite happy to just sit and look at things for hours on end… As soon as I had paper and pencils to play with, and I could draw everything I could see, I was even happier! A creative but lazy baby… I have no idea where it comes from as I can’t think of anyone else in my immediate family who is even slightly artistic.
MT: When did you come up with the idea of creating Pennychoo?
Sue Lee: Five years ago, when a friend suggested that I could incorporate my love of all things vintage into my career (graphic design) by designing greetings cards. I’d already been a designer for 15 years and was out every weekend at 1950s dances and events, so it was a natural and easy step for me to take.
The good thing about greetings cards is that creatively, the sky’s the limit because they’re disposable! People are happier to take a risk with a birthday card then they are with, say, a roll of wallpaper…
MT: Any particular reason for choosing the name Pennychoo?
Sue Lee: A lot of readers won’t be old enough to remember this, but when I was about 6, I’d go to the shop and buy penny and ha’penny (half a penny) sweets, also known as ‘penny chews’ and ‘ha’penny chews’. This is where the name came from, because it’s nostalgic, and sounds quite quirky, although I chose ‘choo’ because it looks better than ‘chew’! A lot of people think that my name is Penny Choo, however, so it probably wasn’t the best choice! Sometimes I think it might just be easier to change my name…
MT: What is the biggest inspiration in your work?
Sue Lee: Anything old! Inspiration comes from a lot of places – old teacups, silk scarves, 1950s handbags, vintage ornaments, old signs and prints, Western shirts, cars, and trucks I’ve photographed over the years at classic car shows… It really is endless. And now that there’s Pinterest, a whole new world of inspiration is available at my fingertips! It’s brilliant.
MT: What makes your product unique?
Sue Lee: Well, hopefully, the fact that they’re all created by me! In terms of style, I don’t reproduce vintage images – I take something as a starting point (a pattern, a shape, a motif, a combination of colours) and develop something new from there, so you never know what direction something might take.
I also try hard to avoid ‘trends’ – I can’t see why someone would try and do the same thing as everybody else! Not everybody likes my cards, but people always tell me that they’re very different from everything else, and when you find someone who loves what you do, they tend to become loyal customers.
MT: We can find your cards on websites such as notinthehighstreet.com, a well-respected e-commerce partner for small businesses. How has it helped your business until now?
Sue Lee: I don’t do brilliantly well on notonthehighstreet because you really have to put a lot of time and effort into keeping your shop visible and relevant, and I simply don’t have the time.
For some people, it’s their main source of income, whereas, for me, it’s a nice sideline as I mostly sell wholesale to shops and through my own website. Where notonthehighstreet excels, however, is in marketing – they promote their site brilliantly, so I probably do a lot better on there than I do with my own site!
MT: How is the importance of social media and e-commerce in your business?
Sue Lee: Good question! As far as social media is concerned, I wish I knew… Apart from me wishes that it wasn’t significant at all, because I resent the amount of time it swallows up and I sometimes wonder if it’s actually worth the effort.
Sometimes you feel like a small voice trying to be heard over a wall of deafening noise; at other times, it can be incredibly handy for promoting an event.
I’m just now starting to get to grips with Google Analytics so hopefully, I’ll soon be able to tell you exactly which social media sites work for Pennychoo and which don’t! I suspect I put too much effort into Facebook, whereas realistically, Pinterest is probably the best site for Pennychoo, and is still my absolute favourite. I like Instagram too.
E-commerce is fantastic, of course – it’s never been easier or cheaper to set up an online shop and it’s opened the way for millions of people like me to start selling without any big outlay or overheads. I often wonder now how anyone can afford to run bricks and mortar shop anymore with rent and rates and heating etc.
MT: How do you see the competition with high street chains nowadays?
Sue Lee: Thanks to the wonder of the internet, you no longer have to be on the high street to sell your products and to be honest, I don’t aspire to be in the big high street shops – I’d rather be in lots of small, quirky shops! Some big buyers have approached me, but what they’re prepared to pay for the cards is so much less than the wholesale price that everyone else pays that it simply isn’t worth it, and I don’t see why they should pay less than a small shop owner does.
The kind of person who wants something interesting and original can do that so easily now by going online or shopping in independent shops, and the kind of person who just wants to pick up something cheap and cheerful in the supermarket will do that, regardless of what I tell them.
I don’t think you can easily change people’s ideas when it comes to good design, so I just aim to appeal to those people who are already likely to like what I do.
MT: Do you think about exporting your products? For which countries?
Sue Lee: I do, and I’d love to, so if any distributors out there are reading this, get in touch!
MT: What are your future projects?
Sue Lee: I’m busy designing cards for the new brochure just now, but the next thing on the list is stationery – notecards, notebooks, and gift wrap. And maybe prints too. I love stationery, and I fancy a bit of a change.
MT: What would be your advice for anyone thinking of starting a business like yours?
Sue Lee: Know what you love before you start and make sure it’s your passion feeding your design! if you go to any trade show, you’ll walk through a sea of samey cards before you see anything that really stands out and has a unique look and feels about it. There are so many people chasing the same trends that you really need something different to make your mark, and a genuine love of something will speak volumes.
Also, don’t just start up because it seems like a nice, easy thing to do! Unless you have a big budget, you’ll have to be reasonably good at a lot of mundane things (marketing, sales, accounting, filing, debt chasing etc) and thanks to the growth of iMacs, digital printing and e-commerce, the greetings cards market has become incredibly competitive.
Oh, and don’t expect to get rich quick! I routinely work a 7 day week, and evenings, and I still do bits of freelance work to make ends meet!
Depressing but true, although hopefully, it won’t be long until I can just concentrate on Pennychoo. Saying that, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it, so if you do know what you love, and you really want to do it, then do it!
Photos | Pennychoo