It’s important to break out of your Instagram echo chamber every now and again. That was my key takeaway from interviewing Joe Kershaw, who runs the Online Pen Company (you may remember they provided the Staedtler Lignum for my recent review).
Kershaw is not what you might expect a pen company owner to be like. He’s still in his twenties, for starters, and he began his career as a web developer before taking over the family business.
Although he’s clearly very interested in (and knowledgeable about) stationery and fountain pens, he doesn’t romanticise them, or the industry in which he operates. In fact, he laid out some cold hard facts that burst my bubble a few times.
How did you get started in the game? Have you always been a pen enthusiast?
The Online Pen Company has been around since the early 2000s, my father was one of the founders. I’ve always been around stationery growing up, because of the business — I had great pens at school! But my background personally is as a web developer. I only started working in the business full time in 2014, taking over in 2017. I wouldn’t say I was a massive stationery enthusiast that then decided to set up a business; I was more into the web development side and stepped into a pre-existing family business.
You’re a digital native that runs an online retailer. How do you make analogue part of your day?
From a business point of view, we try and make sure that everybody in the team gets hands on with the products. It’s not very hard to do that because stationery is inherently pretty interesting and fun to play around with. So, all of our staff have a good selection that they use all day, every day, to write their own notes and stuff.
From a personal point of view, I keep all of my tasks and all of the stuff that I need to work on digitally. But, at the start of every day I will take the time to write in my notepad what I’m going to do, and cross it off as the day goes on. And I do that physically with a pen.
I do this not just to get hands-on with the products I sell, but more because having been digital my whole life, having that physical escape, if you will, is quite therapeutic. Especially with a fountain pen, you can take time cleaning it, take time feeling it, it’s a process that takes a bit of care and attention. It’s such a fast-paced industry and world, it’s nice to slow down and have the escape that writing with a fountain pen provides. I think a lot of people feel that.
Which pens do you find yourself lusting after? Do you have a particular grail pen?
Do I have a grail pen? No, is the simple answer. In our safe we have some very special pens that have never been inked. I’ve been through various stages. I went through a period of being really into Sheaffer 300s. Experimented with Duofolds for a bit.
I’m forever surrounded by pens just due to the nature of the job, so what’s on my desk changes on a very regular basis. We have an engraving department here, and occasionally there are seconds, so I’m never short of a nice pen to play around and experiment with. But they do tend to have someone’s name on them!
There’s only one particular pen that I will never ever not have inked up on my desk: it’s the pen that I used to write the code for our business platform, a Visconti Rembrandt, medium nib, Back to Black edition… it’s well used now and I’ll always hold on to that one. It’s very sentimental.
(Curious about this pen? The Gentleman Stationer reviewed it here)
What are the hidden gems in your range that you think should sell better than they do?
We have a very broad range and surprisingly we sell through most of it pretty well. But one of our brands that I think should sell more is ST Dupont. I went on a tour of their factory and it was amazing. They put so much care and attention into making those products. It was quite mind-blowing. For example, that feeling when you put the cap on: Dupont come from lighters where you open them in and make a ‘ping’ noise. When we went around the factory, there was somebody sat there all day, checking the ping, and they tried to replicate that on the pens. That’s attention that not many brands give to their product.
(To see what Joe means, check out my review of the ST Dupont Elysee)
You stock a lot of traditional brands like Parker, Cross, Sheaffer, Waterman. How do you feel about their relevance in today’s fine-writing market, especially when many of their flagship models, such as the Edson, have been discontinued?
So what you have in the pen market is two completely different kinds of customer. A lot of people buying a nice fountain pen are buying it as a gift, and we cater to those buyers just as much as to those buying for themselves.
If you’re buying a present for somebody, you want them to recognise the brand when they open it. You play it safe and go for a really well-known brand like Cross or Parker. Their pens look good, they have nice big gift boxes, and they offer pens that feel upmarket at a very competitive price point.
Fine writing has been a declining market for as long as we’ve been in it now. That’s not a problem for us as a retailer, because we can always stock the products that our customers need. But I can see how Parker or Cross are looking at how they refine their range for the mass market, looking at those declining numbers and thinking they’ll focus on the everyday gifters. It’s natural that a lot of high-end products like the Edson have been discontinued. These brands are part of large businesses, they cater to the numbers.
As brands cut costs and try to maintain profitability, are you noticing the kinds of quality control problems that I have covered so many times on this blog?
Okay, the short answer is ‘not particularly’. We don’t really see that quality control is an industry problem. You get a certain percentage of returns and you get a certain percentage of customers that want to get a product sent back and repaired and warrantied. We’ll always do our best to make sure that happens. People need to be happy with what they buy. But it’s always a constant, it’s not necessarily increasing and becoming more of an issue. And I can’t identify any brands are worse than any others. Every brand occasionally has a bit of a manufacturing problem. It’s always temporary.
Leaving aside the gifters, who is buying fountain pens nowadays?
There is still a lot of the older age bracket buying a nice pen for themselves. However, we also see a refreshing number of young people getting into it. With all the content on social networks, it’s a lot easier for a young person to rediscover fountain pens now than it was 10 years ago. You tell a young person 10 years ago ‘would you like to get into fountain pens’, they’d say ‘what’s one of those?’. But now they can see on Instagram, they can see somebody doing great writing. And the product range is much more exciting and varied now too.
Do you see that group of new young enthusiasts become collectors, with all of the annual releases for example of Sports or Safaris?
I don’t think there’s a huge amount of people buying fifty different Lamy Safaris in all the colours. I think collecting pens is probably the part of the industry that’s on the way out the door. I don’t necessarily know why. Now, a person might use one pen for a bit and then pass it on or sell it or let it sit in the drawer and move on to something else. I think that’s the mindset nowadays, rather than creating a large collection. Somebody’s more likely to buy one nice pen and then 30 different inks.
How did Covid affect the way people buy pens?
I think 2020 has probably been the most stressful and interesting year to be in business ever. It’s been very strange to be doing well from it in a world that’s falling apart. And I’m very aware that we are the minority.
Our order volume increased, but what people were buying shifted dramatically, almost overnight. As travel restrictions came in, the whole gift market dropped off, so our average order value dropped. But the hobbyist side and the stationery side just made up for that and more, with things like home office and home schooling. People were buying their first pens, with baskets including a pen, converter and bottle of ink, for example. But also I think people were rediscovering old gifted pens in drawers and bringing them back to life with new ink, for example.
How are you as an online store responding to what customers want?
We get a lot of data from the baskets and orders that come through, but you never actually see the customer coming through the door. You can’t see someone as, say, a Waterman customer, you can’t engage with them and get to know what they want and what they like. They might not buy anything and you’ll never know why.
Our short term goal is to just keep growing our range as quickly as we can, putting new stuff on and having a lot of stuff on there for people to buy. But my passion really above all else is creating a good customer experience, and in that, I don’t mean the cheapest prices and the quickest delivery, because those are things that anybody could do if they cut enough corners.
Being a web developer, we have the capability to build essentially whatever we want. We’re not there yet, but I’ve been trying to build the best possible experience, making it fun to browse different colours and finishes, and giving some of that interaction with the product that you would get if we were a physical shop.
My thanks to Joe for taking the time to talk. Click here to find out more about the Online Pen Company.