How can all these pen companies survive?

Oldwin and Onoto and Otto Hutt. Montegrappa and Monteverde and Montblanc. Edison, Desiderata, Franklin-Christoph, Newton, Birmingham. Caran d’Ache, Conway Stewart. Scribo, Cleo Skribent. Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman, Cross. ST Dupont, Graf von Faber-Castell. Tibaldi and Leonardo and the ghosts of Delta and Omas, and new Maiora and newly active Pineider. ASC, Bexley, Wahl-Eversharp. Esterbrook, Conklin. Nakaya and Namiki. Platinum and Pilot. Sailor and Eboya. Schon and Santini. Aurora and Benu and Visconti. Kaweco and Lamy and Pelikan. Karas and Tactile Turn, Namisu and Ferris Wheel. Yard o Led and yStudio and 22design. Opus88 and TWSBI and Fine Writing International and Narwhal and Tools to Liveby and Penlux. Kasama and Kanilea. Herbin and Hakase. Clavijo and Conid. Danitrio and Diplomat and Waldmann. Jinhao and Moonman and PenBBS and Delike. Porsche Design and Hugo Boss. Ranga and Lotus and ASA. Stilform and Scriveiner.

Variety is a wonderful thing. But do you ever feel just a little overwhelmed by choice? That crazy list above contains just the readily available production brands I could reel off the top of my head. There are others, plus all the thousands of one-man-bands, vintage marques and niche companies vying for the limited pen budgets of a relatively small market.

And the situation is even crazier at the product level. Each of these companies has maybe five, ten, fifty models? Colour variants, limited editions. It’s impossible to comprehend and make an informed buying decision about even a fraction of the available products. And if an enthusiast like you or me can’t keep track, how is a newbie supposed to find their feet?

That’s not just a hypothetical question. These are real transactions, real money, real businesses involved. When there’s this much choice, pity the retailers with limited budgets and inventory space that have to either play it safe and stick to stocking the same old brands as everyone else, or place tough bets on which newer or lesser-known brands will cut through the noise and generate fresh interest and sales. And if they bet wrong, they’ll be left with unsellable stock. (I wrote about that in my blog about discounting).

Brands for their part face the almost impossible task of defining a clear market segment to target, and reaching that segment with a distinct message of differentiation to answer the question: why should I spend my money on your product? How is their product different or superior to a hundred better-known alternatives? Only a few have a real unique selling proposition that the brand is built on — Nakaya’s urushi, Conid’s bulkfiller — the rest depend on a more subtle mix of style, features, price and salesmanship. Prettier resin. Fancier boxes. Lower prices. It’s not easy. This is why we see so many old brands, like Tibaldi, resurrected: it’s a shortcut to brand recognition, and heritage is its own differentiator.

It’s a good thing the overheads of running a pen business are actually quite low (compared to, say, consumer electronics or automotive). There’s no issue of safety and compliance, products don’t go obsolete, there’s no need to manufacture different versions for different markets. Product is compact and easy to transport. Key components like nibs are readily available; designs are relatively quick to prototype and contract manufacturing is widely used to minimise capital investment.

But even accounting for all this, it’s a formidable challenge to start and scale a pen brand and I sometimes wonder how all these brands get by with presumably a few hundred or few thousand sales per year. Why do we not see more pen companies discontinuing ranges, exiting markets, shutting down or getting acquired? The likes of Parker and Cross are parts of conglomerates, Montblanc is part of Richemont, and so on, but there are still plenty of independent and undiversified pen companies ticking along.

Aside from the conversations I have with the brands I work with, and my own career in business and marketing, I have no special insight into the pen trade. I wish I did.

As a pen addict I want our industry to thrive, reaching that sustainable equilibrium where businesses can invest in innovation, where reputations for quality and service enhance the bottom line, where competition is hot enough to keep everyone on their toes, but not so fierce that it becomes a barrier to entry or disincentivises long-term planning cycles.

I feel like stationery is in a growth mode. I see lots of new product introductions, lots of startups. Demand feels healthy. But I worry how long that can continue, and who will lose when the consolidation phase inevitably follows.

What’s your take on this situation? Do you have any unique insights? What do you think is the best path forward for our little industry and community?

7 thoughts on “How can all these pen companies survive?

  1. A lot of the one man brand makes are really second jobs/hobbies else retirement hobbies and I can see those staying the same way – any risk to become a full time business I suspect will ultimately fail as those are very dependant on the core buyers and the craft/pens shows – there’s just not the business out there.

    I personally think some ‘in fashion’ brands could be at risk over time as well, though the main one I can think of will probably just tail back their fountain pen production as it’s always been a secondary product for them (won’t say their name here but think some will guess who I mean and I think I’ve actually mentioned in conversation I see their demand dropping rapidly at some point and the second hand market being flooded – the same way you could get some real Nakaya bargains a few years back when they stopped being the ‘must have’ brand).

    I think also we could see the likes of Pineider and Tibaldi go back to being customer brands of other manufacturers, the same way Porsche and Hugo Boss are with Pelikan. (OMAS used to make Pineider pens – think some one else did as well, if it’s not Tibaldi then there’s certainly a second existing Italian pen manufacturer who used to contract out there work).

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  2. Look at the high-priced Esterbrooks (Esterbrooks in name only). Where’s the value in a pen that’s merely a copy of other pens. Shiny, sparkly, and indistinguishable from almost every other shiny, sparkly pen at twice the price.
    There are too many pens made today that look like every other pen. Nib choices are few unless you spend 50 or more dollars getting a nib meister to grind you a different stroke. And for what? Another pen that has no more personality than the thousands of other pens made from acrylics that also look like they could be the cast-off prize at a rigged carnival ring toss game.

    This is the state of the mass-market pens today. Take fifty of them and place in a paper bag, shake, and pull one out. They’re the same and as exciting as last year’s Big Mac. After the initial high of another pen purchase, like a Big Mac, in a few hours, you’re feeling empty again, and it’s time for another Big Mac or mediocre pen purchase. Except these pens are at least 100-200 dollars a pop.

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  3. The answer to the question is of course they won’t all survive, because they can’t. The market is pretty much limited to fanatics – sorry – collectors like us. The general public wouldn’t buy a fountain pen, period, and even if they did, it’s unlikely they’d spend more than $20 on one. That’s why a lot of pen companies are continually coming up with new models and finishes, but I agree with dapprman, at some point the major players will have to limit production. Some of them are already riding on brand reputation alone. I won’t name names, but two of the biggest Italian makers make expensive pens with lousy quality control over their nibs. It would be better for us if companies like this did limit their production and paid more attention to quality control. Others will fail and go out of business.

    I am far more optimistic about the best small artisan pen makers than dapprman or Chapel. Will they ever sell in the high numbers of the major players? No, but they won’t have to. We are in an era when people are less interested in mass production, and more interested in quality artisanship. This isn’t just happening in the pen world; take a look at many other areas such as clothing, leather goods, even backpacks. Will all the new artisan makers survive? No, but the best ones will if they can offer quality and variety customers aren’t getting from a lot of the bloated price major makers. And I don’t mean the variety we often see today, with companies introducing twenty models of the same pen.

    The internet is everywhere, and so are some damn good artisan pen makers. They’re accessible as never before, and – let’s face it – hungry, so they have to compete on the basis of what their customers and potential customers want, not what they throw at them in large numbers like some of the majors. Those artisan makers aren’t all acrylic pen makers either.

    It used to be that centralization and concentration of production lowered the price of goods, but that isn’t as true today. Coming up with new, new, new is very expensive and risky, so who do you think pays for all that? We do! We pay as quality gradually lowers and lowers, and all those corporate officers and middlemen have to be fed too, don’t they?

    No, artisan makers won’t take over the world, but they can force changes in the surviving majors. Some pen companies like Wancher only make as many pens as people pre-order, and they only sell online. I think the larger companies will start moving in that direction, at least in part. More changes will occur and not all of them can be forseen.

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    • There is an increased interest in the last few years which has helped some small companies. I don’t think it can last however, there seems to be an overabundance on offer.
      Interestingly I have the impression that this resurgence of interest does not really benefit department store brands like Waterman, Cross, Sheaffer and Parker. They are barely mentioned by the new aficionados and their booths in the department stores only attract limited interest.

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      • You’re totally right. I see a bifurcated market: a small but very active pool of enthusiasts who don’t buy those old brands, and a potentially much larger pool of people who buy pens as graduation or new job gifts and don’t know any brands apart from those four. Montblanc straddles both groups, of course, and Lamy and Kaweco perhaps. I think the key for survival for our enthusiast brands has to be a degree of crossover into the wider market, but that’s a big chasm to jump in lots of ways.

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  4. Pingback: Fountain Pen Quest Trail Log – September 13, 2020 | Fountain Pen Quest

  5. I don’t have any particular insight into the marketing of fountain pens. I just know I’ve done, and I’m doing, my best to keep my favorite pen companies in business! I’ve bought LOTS of fountain pens, and will continue to buy more. Just doing my bit to help out!

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