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?