The Smilers Story...

The Bear Facts

The issue of a new book of stamps in 1989 heralded a shift in Post Office stamp-selling policy. The stamp-booklet in question was the 1989 Greetings booklet and, for virtually the first time, it contained stamps which could not be regarded as either definitive or commemorative. The first definitive was the 1d Black of 1840 and, as the name implies, these tend to be unchanging in design and available over a long period.

Commemoratives were first introduced in 1924 and were only issued to commemorate important events or anniversaries and, from 1966 (with the Landscape issue), themes of relevance to Britain or British culture. Some exceptions can be noted – the Charity issue of 1974, and a few stamps of relevance to international themes or anniversaries, but they are few and far between. The stamp designs used in the Greetings booklet stamps, together with their accompanying generic tabs can be seen as the forerunners to the Smilers sheets that followed in 2000.

The first Greetings booklet featured a series of five stamps depicting images (a teddy bear, Cupid, etc) which permitted a form of ‘personalised’ expression (or choice) dependent upon the stamp image used. Between the period 1989 to 1997, a total of ten Greetings booklets were to be issued, utilising variations on the     Greeting theme. Perhaps the most significant was the set which first appeared in 1990, a set of 10 stamps depicting famous “smiles”. Whilst these were again re-issued with non-value indicators in 1991, the set  re-appeared again as part of a souvenir stamp sheet issued to coincide with the International Stamp Show 2000. Many of the Greetings series of stamp-booklets were also supplied with a set of special labels bearing greetings messages which,  together with the stamps, could be combined to add a personalised message – does this sound familiar?

Occasions or Smilers?

What stamp collectors have affectionately come to term as Smilers stamps and sheets could have perhaps more appropriately, been called Greetings or Occasions sheets, after the stamps used by Royal Mail in the production of the early Smilers stamp sheets.  However, the ability to have your photograph alongside a Royal Mail stamp was new for the British public and what was needed was an identity distinct from the Greetings stamps that would promote this as a fun thing to do. The selected brand Smilers is  therefore perhaps best described as an evolution, rather than a revolution, having its roots in the earlier Greetings/Occasions stamp  issues by Royal Mail.

Post-a-Photo

From about the early 1990’s the Post Office/Royal Mail embarked on a series of marketing initiatives, designed perhaps to broaden their customer base but always with a philatelic theme. The Post Office had sold crockery at a Stampex event in the late 70’s depicting the Wildlife series from that period. The introduction of the Post-a-Photo service is an important development in the Smilers Story and provides a clear link between the early Greetings stamps of the 80’s and 90’s to the   Smilers sheets of the new millennium.

During 1992 Royal Mail introduced a personalised postcard service called Post-a-Photo. Initially the subject of a Royal Mail promotion, Royal Mail customers were invited to submit a negative and 4 x 1st class stamps to Royal Mail who in return agreed to supply 20 personalised postcards using the negative provided. Royal Mail may have underestimated the popularity of this product, or perhaps the manufacturer was unable to fulfil all the orders, but shortly afterwards Royal Mail apologised for the initial delay in providing the postcards and subsequently its cancellation of some orders. The Post-a-Photo promotion was subsequently cancelled completely by Royal Mail as the text of the following letter and postcard describes. A complimentary book of stamps issued January 1992 was supplied to all disappointed Royal Mail customers.

Following the initial Post-a-Photo promotion, Royal Mail did appoint another postcard manufacturer because by November 1992 customers were again being contacted to supply their negatives by 6th November 1992, the closing date for the re-launched service.

As part of that effort, two postcards were issued to disappointed customers by Royal Mail which featured two of the smilers stamps. The first “Bear with us …” advises customers of a problem. The second “Hurry along now!” advises customers of the closing date for the service.

Generic Smilers

Following the success of the Stamp Show 2000 sheet and 2000 Christmas sheets, The Post Office issued five different Customised Smilers sheets in May 2001 featuring the Hallmark stamps of the previous  February. The Hallmarks Generic Smilers sheet did not appear until 5th June 2001 and whilst it is not clear why this sheet was delayed it was a welcomed move by Royal Mail.  Until then the only way collectors could obtain a set of Hallmark Smilers stamps and generic-tabs was to buy a set of five customised sheets. Over sixty sheet designs have now been released, averaging about six per year. The early ones are hard to find in unblemished condition – many have minor bends/creases from handling, or have been folded in half in the case of sheets supplied by post from Edinburgh. As with normal commemorative issues, the generic sheets are usually available from philatelic counters for 12 months (this was extended to 13 months for one issue, GS-015) unless sold out earlier.

The Stamp Show 2000 sheet sold just fewer than 52,000 copies, but the sales figures for subsequent sheets have never been released. Bearing in mind the premium over face most sales are likely to be philatelic, but commercially used singles can be found in kilo-ware, particularly of the Christmas issues. Even so, sales of GS-001 were lower than any regular GB commemorative issue (the closest, the £1 PUC of 1929 sold 61,000 copies). Interest in the early sheets tailed off rapidly after GS-001, before picking up at the end of 2002. Some are quite scarce, notably the 2001 Christmas pair.

Commemorative and definitive releases are normally publicised in Post Office outlets by means of A4 coloured illustrations – the so-called ‘grille’ cards, see page 1-1. Apart from the initial issues (Xmas 2000) none of the Generic Smilers sheets have been publicised in this way, but the designs are normally illustrated in the Royal Mail ‘preview’ brochures well in advance of issue using artists mock-ups. The issued versions often show modifications when actually released and in at least two instances the original printings have been issued in error alongside the revised versions, notably the 2003 Occasions sheet and the 2005 ITV sheet, refer page 2-7 and 2-13.

Customised Smilers

The Post Office introduced ‘Smilers’ sheets as a way of ‘personalising’ postage stamps at the London      International Stamp Exhibition in May 2000. The A4 sized sheets contained ten (later, twenty) stamps se-tenant with an unprinted photo tab which could be customised with a photograph. The service was quite expensive. The initial cost for a single sheet of ten personalised stamps was £5.95 (£5.00 each for two or more sheets, a premium of £4.80 on the cost of twenty stamps). The current cost is £13.50 per personalised sheet of twenty first-class stamps (a premium of £5.70 over face), though this falls to £12.50 for two or more sheets. The Post Office, subsequently renamed Consignia plc (2001), then Royal Mail Group plc (2002) and currently Royal Mail Group Ltd (2006), intended the Smilers trademark to apply to personalised stamp sheets only, but at the same time a sheet with printed tabs was made available at a lower price (£2.95 – a 35p surcharge on the cost of the stamps). The Post Office used to refer to these simply as generic sheets, but now call these Generic SmilersTM Sheets. Since 2005 this has changed on all sheets to Generic Smilers® Sheets. In a more recent development (from late 2006), Royal Mail have now started omitting the word    Smilers from those generic sheets not available in personalised format, e.g. the We Shall Remember Them sheet ,  Wembley and Machin sheets have the brand Smilers omitted.  Whilst somewhat confusing all generic sheets are sold under the banner of the Generic Smilers Sheets via Royal Mail’s on-line order facility but not all sheet are available in personalised format. It has become even more confusing with the recent release of the Castles series of Generic Smilers Sheets all of which are branded Smilers but are not available in personalised formats!   Stanley Gibbons initially announced that since Smilers sheets were not available at face they would be relegated to the status of catalogue footnotes, and this, coupled with the cost (over single-set new issues) and unwieldy sheet sizes, led to a steady decline in sales of the subsequent sheets until interest took off in late 2002. Royal Mail released a dedicated album for the series in 2003 and Gibbons eventually listed the generic versions in the 2004 GB ‘Concise’ catalogue, which further fuelled demand.

The personalised sheets are footnoted by Gibbons in the GB ‘Concise’, but not illustrated. In contrast to the generic series, they have received scant attention in the philatelic literature – to the extent that many collectors have never seen them. To date about sixty basic designs have been released: some are almost identical to the generic versions, but most contain unique border designs and/or stamp combinations. Several were produced by a different printer to that responsible for the generic issue, resulting in recognisably different stamps. The print runs of ‘blanks’ for personalisation are much lower than for the    generic sheets and some have been subjected to (unannounced) reprints. Royal Mail has strict guidelines as to the type of image that can be reproduced in the blank tabs: these are displayed on Post Office publicity brochures and on the website. It is believed that the first issue was only available with photographic portraits, but all subsequent issues could be customised with pictorial images. These are scarce on the early sheets - examples are illustrated below for Xmas 2000, sold to raise funds for New Marnoch Church in Aberchirder, Scotland.

Given the interest expressed by collectors, philatelic sales of these sheets would appear to have been small (the first issue apart) until interest was again renewed late 2005. Early Smilers sheets are difficult to find intact, either having been broken up for postage or gathering dust as sentimental keepsakes. On the plus side, when they occasionally do surface they can often be bought for less than the generic equivalents! Their     relative scarcities do not parallel the generic series – the 2000 and 2001 Christmas issues are among the ‘easier’ personalised sheets. Paradoxically, commercially used personalised singles crop up in kiloware more frequently than do singles from the generic sheets, so demand from the public has clearly been high enough for Royal Mail to justify the service. Most sheets available after late 2005 are much easier to find,  though there are some exceptions, such as the ITV sheet (CS-026) which was withdrawn unexpectedly in mid-2006.

The period of sales of these sheets has been difficult to establish: they usually become available on the same date as the generic versions, but withdrawal dates are rarely announced. Some, such as the Stamp Show 2000, were available for just a few weeks while some, such as the ‘Moving Home’ Occasions sheet, had been on sale continuously since introduction in 2002 up until 2006. Some are ‘seasonal’ – the Xmas 2002 sheet could be ordered from October to December each year until the end of 2004, but not in the intervening months. The only reliable way of keeping track is by phoning the ‘Smilers helpline’ periodically and enquiring which are still available.

Instant Smilers

Visitors to The Stamp Show 2000 were, for the first time in Britain, able to purchase a sheet of  postage stamps with their own image printed on photo-tabs adjacent to the stamps and create their very own personalised souvenir covers.  Customers completed an order form, had their photographs taken and the resulting image was printed onto sheets containing blank photo-tabs. The whole process took about 10 minutes. The exhibition attracted 55,000 visitors and this innovation proved popular with visitors – a Post Office survey dated July 2000 cited 23% of those surveyed intended to buy the personalised stamps. The resulting  personalised Smilers Sheet was presented to the customer in an attractive red folder with a distinctive Smile cut-out, very reminiscent of the cover of the 1990 Greetings stamp-booklet which had used the same stamp images as the personalised Instant Smilers sheet. Visitors to the show could re-order additional copies of their personalised Smilers Sheets by sending a special re-order form to Royal Mail Smilers, House of Questa, Byfleet at a cost of £5 each.