Flying the flag for local gifts

Last updated 05:00 07/06/2014
Flag Souvenirs owner David Bolam-Smith
KEEPSAKE: Flag Souvenirs owner David Bolam-Smith says he's still in "recovery mode" after the Canterbury quakes.

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For years, many New Zealand souvenir shops have been stocked with the familiar imported knick-knacks. Shelves are filled with plastic tiki, stuffed toy kiwi, pohutakawa hand cream and jandal key-rings.

Ironically, many of these goods intended to showcase New Zealand are recent arrivals themselves, from factories in China or Taiwan.

But Flag Souvenirs owner David Bolam-Smith says the tide has turned against cheap imports, and more tourist customers are questioning the provenance of their purchases.

Not so long ago, he says "everyone was importing from Asia, and the theory was cheap is best".

But when the cruise ships started coming in around 10 years ago they brought with them "a different breed of tourist".

"People were going into shops, and they would ask "where was this made?" If it was made in China, they'd put it back down. So after a while, shop owners started demanding New Zealand-made sections in their stores."

Flag Souvenirs, started by Bolam-Smith and his wife Junko in the 1990s, stepped in to meet demand for Kiwi-made souvenirs, and still stocks only New-Zealand made goods..

The company is a broker and wholesaler, working with a dozen local craftspeople to supply gift shops around the country.

Most of its products are carved from New Zealand rimu and embossed with paua - wine racks, carved kiwi, wooden spoons and whale tails.

The range has become popular enough that demand outpaces supply.

"We can barely keep up," Bolam-Smith says.

Even so, the business has not been without its challenges, with the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes causing tourist numbers to the city to plummet. Many local souvenir vendors - who made up the majority of Flag Souvenirs' buyers - shut their doors.

"After the quakes, we really lost the whole Christchurch market," Bolam-Smith says.

"So we're still in recovery mode. It would have been easy to just roll down the door and say ‘that's it', but I was determined to carry on."

Following the quakes, the number of orders coming in from other cities actually boomed, with suppliers "just wanting to do something to help out".

Today, growth is back on the up locally, and the company supplies stores in Auckland, Wellington, Tekapo, Queenstown and Nelson.

Bolam-Smith still does sales the old-fashioned way, travelling to meet store owners around the country.

"I'm a great believer that people-to-people relationships are so important. One visit is worth 1000 emails," he says.

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The company does a small amount of export, mostly supplying New Zealand embassies.

Bolam-Smith would not disclose revenue or turnover figures, but he described the profit margin as "worthwhile".

"Plus, I really enjoy what I do. I love our products. I love travelling. I feel very lucky."

He also sees a vital role for the company in supporting smaller-scale New Zealand craftspeople, who would otherwise struggle to reach a market. "For me, those little businesses stand for the Kiwi spirit. Big isn't always best. We play a very important role in the New Zealand economy - it's like the stones on the walk outside. They're small, but collectively they make a path."

- The Press

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