Morplan has been supplying the UK’s retail and fashion industries with shop fittings and equipment for 170 years. Here, marketing director Norman Haynes looks back through the archives and explains how the brand’s client base and product range has evolved since it was founded in South London.
How has the brand evolved over its 170-year history?
It was a family business lead by Mr [George] Morrish, who started off as a single trader in the printing business from the bottom of his garden. He later moved his business from South London right into the centre – next to St Pauls – and then eventually to what we would now call the West End of London. And it was that relocation that flavoured the business because it was surrounded by fashion businesses, seamstresses etc. People would say to them, “you’re a stationer, can you get some scissors for cutting fabric?”. Morplan didn’t have fabric scissors at the time, but they wanted to meet the demand, so the range developed from there. The modernisation of the business, from being a printer and stationer, into the supply service didn’t take place until the 1960s and from what we were told, the directors at the time went over to the States to understand how selling was done between wide distances and they brought that idea home to the UK. At that time, they were only supplying London and the South East. So that’s how it expanded. More recently, the internet has changed how people can gain access to our products.
How has your client base changed over this period?
If you wind back to around 1990, Morplan was heavily involved with Marks & Spencer for the sale of plastic hooks that went on top of clear plastic boxes, which contained knickers and bras. We developed those hooks – they were patented at the time – and it revolutionised the way that bras were sold. Of course, that later moved on, and garment manufacturing started to move off shore. The statistic that really stood out was at the beginning of the 1990s, M&S was developing over 95% of its products in the UK, but by the end of the 1990s, it was producing just 5% of its merchandise in the UK. That is a horrendous industry change and affectively triggered our diversification across more sectors. We are still predominately fashion based, but will also supply items for sectors such as jewellery and gifts.
What percentage of your customer base is made up of lingerie brands?
I don’t have a specific figure, but I would imagine that it would have subsided in recent years, purely because the offshore of lingerie production in this country. You still get a lot of independents making lingerie in the UK, but the big production has gone overseas unfortunately. We do still service some of those big producers, but M&S sensibly has a policy of wanting packaging to be at needle point – in other words, where it’s within miles of the production unit, otherwise you’re shipping goods in order to have them packaged and it doesn’t make sense.
How has the popularity of online shopping affected your business?
It is affected by migration from one channel to another. Some people only like to trade with us by going into one of our stores, some like the telephone and some only ever use the internet and some use all of them. There’s definitely been a change, but if look at the press releases issued by the local data company, you’ll find that independent retailers up until 2014 were actually opening quicker than they were closing, and the real problem for the high street, if you want to call it a problem, wasn’t the indies; it was in fact big chains. Everyone was getting bored with the chains being of a similar nature and it sort of moved on.
How have your products changed to support retailers’ needs?
I think people’s buying habits have changed and I think this affects businesses as much as it affects individual consumers in that we all tend to buy more often, but less. We keep our money in our own bank account and literally only buy what’s needed and this has changed the way our stock is used. In reality, our stock availability hasn’t changed at all in the last 15 to 20 years – it’s always been run at about 98%. I think it’s more how often people dip into the stock to top up their own. Obviously, there has been a huge change in the product range. In terms of the fashion industry in general, at one point everyone wanted natural wooden hangers and then they wanted cherry wood or dark brown colours and then it turned to black and white. At the moment, the darker colours are going out of
Do you get any unusual product requests?
Yes, we certainly do. We were asked by Stonehenge to fit out their new visitor’s centre about this time last year, so we supplied them with display dummies, jewellery stands, point of sale material etc. The other thing that we’ve often been asked for is materials that help the sculpting business, so there was a sculptor who was asked to produce dummies for a museum, but they had to be in unusual poses. Fortunately, we sell what we call bendy mannequins, which we introduced to them and they used them to make their models. So they started with a bendy mannequin, built around it, removed the mannequin from the inside, and made their sculpture from that.
What are your most popular items at the moment?
It depends where you’re looking. For retailers, it would be things like tissue paper for wrapping and then carrier bags would be the next most popular item. If we come away from the packaging area then it’s probably point of sale material; for instance, most retailers have a clear Perspex stand where they put price list signs. That is probably one of the most popular products after packaging materials. Of course, our display items are also popular, so things like jewellery busts and mannequins, but these are quite expensive and people don’t tend to replace these quite
Do you have much competition in this supply sector?
You could probably find somewhere in the UK that sells a small handful of the things that Morplan sells and if you’re prepared to wait for 16 weeks then you could probably have it made, but there aren’t any competitors that supply the range that we do. Of course there are people that sell jewellery busts, but it’s about quality and price and availability. If someone orders by 4pm, we deliver the next day.
The quality of our products is checked and maintained at a high standard and our prices are constantly monitored against our competition to make sure people get value for money.