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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2006, 00:16 GMT
Stupid Bags lady drinks to success
By Bill Wilson
BBC News, business reporter, Gateshead

Gateshead businesswoman Maria Difolco
Maria Difolco with one of her bag designs featuring Squiffy

The north-east of England is well-known as a "party region" and one offbeat firm is helping to keep the drinks flowing in a uniquely convivial atmosphere.

It came after a work accident brought about a surprising change of career for former telecoms project manager Marie Difolco.

For, as she lay in her sickbed encased in plaster up to her hip, she began doodling cartoon characters, and the first step towards her business start-up Stupid Bags had been made.

As she scribbled away, her good-time drinking-character Squiffy was born.

It took one more imaginative step before she realised that there was a gap between the greetings cards and wine bag markets - and in a stroke she had found the perfect home for her little cartoon guzzler.

He now appears in a variety of guises on her bags, and all designed to help get the plonk flowing.

"I started jotting down ideas and drawings of people drinking, on an anniversary or birthday," she says, studying her latest drawings at her workshop in Pelaw, Gateshead.

"I first started thinking about putting them on bottles of wine, then thought that was not realistic, so had the idea of putting them on bags instead.

"They are tongue-in-cheek, cheeky, designs," she says, adding: "Coming up with the name Stupid Bags was by no means a scientific process."

'Cross-market product'

Initial interest came from Fenwicks department store in Newcastle city centre, which has taken her stock, and the items are also available in other outlets across the region.

"I looked at the greetings card market and thought there was a gap for a cross-market product," she says.

A selection of Stupid Bags' designs
There are a wide variety of slogans and Squiffy cartoons on the bags

"At events such as birthdays and Valentine's Day you usually have to get a card and a bottle of wine. That is how the product started to develop.

"I am not competing with the greetings card industry. I want to encourage wine chains and supermarkets and, at the same time, the interest of card shops.

"It gives retailers an extra sales opportunity, my products can be an add-on sale in the way that glittery bags never will be. They can pile them high and sell them cheap."

'Encouragement'

The bags, made of matt laminate card with red cotton rope handles, are manufactured in Shenzen economic zone in China.

"I have just taken delivery of my second order of bags from China, and are now getting them made for less cost than my first consignment," says Maria, a member of the China Business Association.

"I would have looked for a British manufacturer but the fact is I cannot get them made at a similar price."

Some Stupid Bag slogans
Who Needs Men Anyway
Wino!
Girls' Night In
Well Done You
Sorry Honey
Cheers Big Ears
Any Old Excuse

The bags come in single, double and triple sized wine bags, and larger bags are available in other materials.

Her firm recently appeared at the brand licensing show at Olympia in London, and her first exports have been made to MK Papper in Sweden.

Maria is also off on a trade mission to Australia this month, and has been on a trade visit to Ireland, as well as visiting factories in China.

However for the time being her business remains firmly rooted in the North East.

"The North East is the right place for my business, there are plenty of bodies and individuals encouraging those who want to start their own company," she says. "People want to see you do well."

Two companies

But despite a supportive business community in the region she needs to raise more cash to take her businesses forward.

The aim is to raise 200,000 towards marketing and advertising and to take on more staff.

"I think I am onto a good thing with Stupid Bags, because I have had interest from big companies who have asked to take a slice of my business - but so far I have chosen to struggle on my own.

It has been an organic process so far - but hopefully there will be a sales peak at Christmas
Maria Difolco

"A lot of the organisations that lend money may want to take a slice of my businesses.

"Because I don't have millions of my own in the bank that is something I will have to consider though."

Now she actually has two companies, one making the bags - Stupid Bags, and one to license the Squiffy design for use on other products - Not So Stupid.

"I have had people asking me if they can distribute the bags, and others asking if they can license my artwork," she says.

"Stupid Bags will grow through my artwork on bottle bags, but it seems sensible that the other company should be able to sell my artwork for use on other products.

"It has been an organic process so far - but hopefully there will be a sales peak at Christmas."




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