The Two Sides of Paper
by Kari Anderson
“Paper in an art supply store is like cosmetics in Bloomingdale’s,” says Ted Ginsburg, vice president of Legion Paper. “It’s a staple. It’s also the basis for most artwork. If customers come in for paper, they’ll end up getting brushes, pastels, paints, frames – everything that goes along with it.”
Because Legion paper distributes 3,400 papers from all over the world, Ted has a pretty good idea of what’s hot. “Digital papers are a growth area right now. They’re used to reproduce photographs and other images, and at $1.50 a sheet, it’s expensive stuff.
“Stationery and decorative papers are also growing,” continues Ted. “When I’m in a store, and I see people buying decorative paper, I’ll ask them what they’re going to do with it. Often, they’ll say, ‘I don’t know, but I love it!’ People with creative minds will think of things to do with these papers.”
How hot is it?
Despite the popularity of decorative papers, Ted says many art supply retailers are afraid to branch out. “Most retailers just carry basic materials, and they don’t take a position in paper,” he notes. “The retailers who do put in proper paper departments get 30 to 50 percent of their store’s profits out of that department because they’ve become known as a source and have developed a reputation for carrying a variety of papers.”
When jumping into decorative papers, it pays to understand the nature of selling a product that may be hot one year and cold the next. “Papers can be volatile like the fashion business and the decorative market,” says Ted. “If you don’t get in and out quick enough, you’ll be stuck with inventory. I’ve seen hot products shift from corrugated papers to translucent vellums to metallics. All of the really popular papers have a shelf life of about two years. That means there’s a window for us to get the product to the retailers before it peaks. The trick is deciding when to move ahead and when to hold back.”
As for fine art paper, Ted says the market is quiet. “Staple papers are not going away, but the volume being produced has gotten smaller because there aren’t as many printmaking shops or custom book binderies as there used to be. It’s a sleepy industry.”
Ted advises retailers to encourage their customers not to get penned in by the specific types of fine art paper. “The key with paper is that it doesn’t have a mind. It doesn’t say, ‘I’m printmaking paper’ or ‘I’m watercolor paper.’ It doesn’t care what you put on it, so if someone comes to you for drawing paper, and all you have is printmaking paper, don’t lose the sale; sell what you have! People are taught that there are specific uses for different types of paper, but you can get locked into that. Use those guidelines as a road map, but don’t be afraid to veer from them.”
Consumers want bargains
Don Bozek, marketing manager for Strathmore Artist Papers, is seeing a downward trend both in terms of the prices of fine art papers and in the level of quality being purchased. He believes that a weakened economy, pressure among retailers to compete with big box competitors, and the need to cater to price-sensitive consumers have all contributed to this trend.
“For years we had three series of products that represented different levels of quality. The 300 Series was good, 400 better, and 500 best,” says Don. “Recently we added a value line called the Student Series which has seen a lot of play with retailers seeking to cater to price-conscious consumers. I’ve seen demand slide to the ‘value’ side and away from the ‘best’ side in the last couple of years.”
Even though customers appear to be settling for lower quality paper, Don is careful to put the trend in perspective. “The quality of papers manufactured today is better than it’s ever been in terms of consistency and cleanliness,” he says. “Today’s technology and computerized processing systems mean there’s a lot less guess work and less of an Old World approach to papermaking. When I compare our 500 Series today with what we put out 15 years ago, the consistency has vastly improved, resulting in less manufacturing waste. The consumer may not be aware of the change because we cull out the bad papers at the mill. Now we don’t have to do that nearly as much, and less waste has helped stabilize pricing.”
Prices – and choices – aren’t what they used to be
Mike Hill, owner of Purveyors of Art & Design Materials in Boone, North Carolina, agrees that prices on fine art paper are getting lower, but that’s not necessarily good news. “It’s like a gas war on paper, and we’re trying to see who can go the lowest,” says Mike. “It used to be that you never had a sale on paper. Paper was a given, a staple. People would buy it because they needed it. Now, there are bigger chain stores selling paper at practically wholesale prices, and that’s frustrating to independent store owners like me.”
Along with lower prices, Mike is also finding that the selection is getting slimmer. “There aren’t as many choices out there,” he says. “We used to be able to find rolls of papers or oversized sheets for our customers who wanted to use a particular paper for a larger piece of art. Now it’s hard to find those unusual sizes. Manufacturers have cut back on the niche products.”
The buzz is in decorative
What excites Mike now is the success of his decorative papers. The papers, ranging from mango leaf to paper lace, hang from his ceiling. Strung on dowels that are suspended by chains, decorative paper is the first thing customers notice upon entering his store. Occupying roughly half of his ceiling space, Mike says the papers give his store the look of an Indian bazaar and add visual interest, in a chaotic way.
The textures of these papers are a major selling point for the artists who shop at his store. “Handling is what sells,” he says. “In retail, half the battle is getting people to hold something in their hands and touch it. Art is tactile!”
Mike constantly changes his selection of decorative papers, and he admits that “each shipment is more bizarre and random than the last batch.” The drawback is that the frequent changes, and the inability to precisely scan textures, make it difficult to market this type of paper on his website. Fortunately, shoppers are drawn to his store more frequently because they know when they come, the mix will have changed.
“If you have something unusual, the impression on customers is: ‘this guy’s got everything.’ That may not be so, but the impression carries over into other areas of my store,” says Mike.
Isn’t it a craft item?
When he first considered adding decorative paper to his product mix, Mike was reluctant. “I thought, ‘This is a craft product. If I bring that in, I’ll have to start selling wiggly eyes and fake fur, too.’ But it’s had the opposite effect; adding the decorative paper has bolstered my sales of the vanilla paper as well other fine art materials.
“Decorative paper has become a significant portion of my sales, and a significant portion of my product mix,” concludes Mike. “It has a bigger audience than regular art supplies, and people who use this stuff can’t get enough of it. It’s a low investment for the price it’ll fetch.”
If you’re going to speak the language, you’d better know the words. Here, Don Bozek of Strathmore Artist Papers offers explanations for some of the terms used in the paper trade.
Pounds vs. GSM
Traditionally a 140-pound watercolor paper meant that if you took 500 sheets of 22”x30” paper and placed it on a scale, it would weigh 140 pounds. The problem with this system is that each type of paper relates to a different basis size: watercolor paper is 22”x30”, but drawing paper is 24”x36” and sketch paper is 25”x38”, so the basis size varies from paper type to paper type. It’s apples and oranges.
Now more and more, we use the metric measure, grams per square meter (GSM) to measure paper weight, and we’re comparing apples to apples. It’s leveled the playing field and made things simpler. A 300 GSM sheet, even if comparing two different types of paper, weighs twice as much as a 150 GSM sheet. However, there will always be traditionalists who will come in and ask for 140-pound watercolor paper because that’s what they’ve heard, and that’s how they know it. Retailers need to be able to speak both of these languages.
Acid-free vs. pH-neutral
A lot of confusion still exists with these two terms. Acid-free means that the paper has been made in an alkaline papermaking environment, buffered with calcium carbonate and has a pH of greater than 7. Traditionally a pH neutral sheet was made using acid chemistry and buffered with calcium carbonate so that when a litmus test was taken it would register that the sheet had a neutral or alkaline pH. Most paper mills today have converted to alkaline environments and most papers are marketed correctly as acid-free.
Durability vs. longevity
This is really about fiber versus chemistry. A paper with a high level of durability means that the sheet has strong surface properties. It has strong erasing capabilities for drawing, or scrubbing for watercolor. Typically cotton fiber provides a more durable surface than wood fiber. Longevity, on the other hand, relates to the chemistry of the sheet. Is it made alkaline (acid-free) or acid? An acid-free sheet will resist aging better than an acid sheet. Both wood fiber and cotton sheets can be made acid-free or acid.