Classic Canes Walking Sticks
For 40 years British wholesaler Classic Canes has been supplying walking sticks, seat sticks and umbrellas to the retail trade. THIIS chats to Charlotte Gillan, Managing Director of Classic Canes to find out more about the brand…

How did Classic Canes come about?

“Classic Canes is a true family business, founded in 1982 by my parents, Ben and Diana Porter.  They had bought a Somerset woodland that contained a ruined Tudor house, and while they were rebuilding the house they discovered that the woodland was naturally producing suitable wood for the manufacture of walking sticks.

“They sold some of the wood to a factory, bought back the finished products and started selling sticks to local gift shops, country clothing shops and tobacconists.

It really did start at the proverbial kitchen table, although the sticks soon filled the garage and every other space they could find too, including under our beds!

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“I grew up with the business and came to work in it full time in 2003 after working in luxury goods marketing in London and Edinburgh.”

Charlotte Gillan of Classic Canes, creating cane artwork

Which products do you regard as your bestsellers?

“Mobility retailers do very well with wooden everyday sticks, ladies’ patterned canes, orthopaedic canes, folding sticks and the more specialist accessories such as heavy duty rubber ferrules and attachments so canes can be used on icy pavements.

“Classic Canes is renowned for its quality and design, and many of our patterns are exclusive to us, so retailers come to us to buy canes that won’t be seen in all their competitors’ shops.  I create the artwork for many of them myself, and our stockists find this a great story to tell their customers as it makes it so much more personal.”

Classic Canes celebrates its 40th anniversary this year – how do you think things have changed in the industry over the years?

“When we started Classic Canes, there were virtually no canes on the market designed for women.  Women had to make do with a clumpy, man’s stick cut down in height.

“We have worked hard on this to make elegant and fashionable canes for women, which are now the largest part of the market.  There were also very few mobility retailers in the early days: most people bought a walking stick from a department store or a tobacconist.

“When the mobility industry started to develop, we did not initially pursue it because we thought these retailers were only interested in the cheapest, most functional canes.  However, the industry came to us in search of better quality and more elegantly designed products and is now an important sector of our market.

“In many ways it is much easier to do business now than when we started: email, digital photography and digital printing have made communication much easier and marketing materials much cheaper to produce.”

What have been the highlights for Classic Canes since it was established?

“The history of Classic Canes would fill a book, which I fully intend to write one day when time allows.  The highlights come in many kinds, from the enormous order from the Johnny Walker whisky company that paid for a new warehouse, to the time we spotted Bianca Jagger in Paris using one of our canes.

“The best though is when a new buyer looks at our range and says, “Aren’t they lovely; looking at these, I can’t wait until I can use walking stick!”  Using a stick can sometimes be an emotional hurdle for people, but once they realise they can have something stylish that will draw admiring comments, it can make a vast difference to their everyday life.  That is what we design for.”

Has your firm been impacted by external factors over the past year?

Classic Canes
Fashionable canes

“International freight costs and delays are ongoing issues that mean we have to plan even further ahead when manufacturing stock and creating new products.  Fortunately, we carry a lot of stock and a range of over 700 models, so even if one particular model is out of stock waiting for replenishments to arrive, there are usually a great many substitutes that we can offer.
“We are fortunate that our products occupy a niche where they are not only practical necessities, but they are attractive enough to sell as fashion accessories too.  During lockdown we were surprised to find the average value of the products we sold increased as members of the public took the opportunity to treat themselves with new models to add to their collections of canes.”

Will you be marking the anniversary in any way this year?

“We are launching a fabulous new catalogue in the late summer with many new models in it, which will show how far the humble walking stick has evolved over the four decades to become a style statement.

“The ongoing Covid situation means that a large party or open day for customers  is not practical or responsible to organise, but we will have a small-scale event for our employees to thank them for their hard work over the years.  Most of them have been with us for at least a quarter of our existence and some rather longer than that, so they really are the core of the business.”

What advice do you give to retailers in maximising sales for Classic Canes products?

“Good display is the key to maximising sales, along with not under-estimating how much people are prepared to spend on a walking stick.  We supply a detailed list of display tips to new customers when they start with us.

“Common errors include not tidying and dusting the displays frequently enough, not replenishing the stock when it starts to run down and then wondering why sales tail off, and not making the products accessible enough to the customers – yes, even mobility retailers do this.

“Very few walking stick users are agile enough to pick a folding cane up from basket on the ground, and I have lost count of the times I have seen the petite-size canes designed for the shortest customers hung at the very top of a wall of slatwall.

“Walking stick display and product selection is really another article in itself!  However, I must emphasise, there are many retailers who do it brilliantly and we are very grateful to them for helping our products meet the people for whom they were designed.”

Are you seeking more dealers?

Classic Canes everyday walking stck
Everyday walking sticks

“Yes, we are always interested in finding new stockists.  There are many UK towns and cities where we have not found the right retailer and where we would love to be well-represented.  Walking sticks are a niche subject and so we provide a lot of information and support to our stockists, including very good product and lifestyle photography.

“It is so important now to have first rate photography for a retailer’s website and social media activities.  We also have specially-designed display stands, point-of-sale cards and posters, and most importantly, helpful and well-informed employees who are ready to help customers compile their orders to achieve the optimum balance of stock.  We are also on hand to provide retailers with answers to all the unusual questions members of the public sometimes ask!”

What’s coming up for 2022?

“Our new products for the summer are still top secret, but the pre-production samples look wonderful and we think they will be a great success.  We are also currently recruiting for a new office administrator.  The stick market has bounced back well from the early shock of Covid and we need help with the workload!

“Our employees have been wonderfully supportive and uncomplaining over the last couple of years and there are some rather overdue holidays to be taken.

“Finally, I have to say that the 40th anniversary of Classic Canes is a special milestone for my parents in particular.  Who else would have taken a neglected Somerset woodland and turned it into a internationally-acclaimed walking stick brand?”

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We respect your privacy McIvorAnalysis & InsightsNewsroomRetailer NewsTrade NewsTrade Talkcanes,classic canes,Mobility,retailers,sales,Trade talk,walking sticksFor 40 years British wholesaler Classic Canes has been supplying walking sticks, seat sticks and umbrellas to the retail trade. THIIS chats to Charlotte Gillan, Managing Director of Classic Canes to find out more about the brand… How did Classic Canes come about? “Classic Canes is a true family business, founded...News, views & products for mobility, access and independent living professionals