So that was Black Friday. How was yours, pen addicts?

Hot on the heels of the pen show season and Fountain Pen Day came this weekend’s Black Friday. It may just be my personal perception, but I felt that this year the mood on the forums and on social media was a little frenzied.

The industry-wide frenzy

Stilo e Stile’s website crashed after news of an exclusive Leonardo model launching during the promotion, and so did Appelboom’s, in spectacular fashion, before they even put any offers up on social media. Iguanasell and Cult Pens put on week-long, massively organised promotions. Most other European and UK retailers and direct-to-consumer brands “large” and small — PW Akkerman, Pure Pens, Pen Venture, Write Here, Gravitas, Good Inkpressions, Galen Leather, Wheelers, etc — put on discounts of 10-20% closer to Black Friday itself, some sitewide and some on a limited selection of products (but sitewide is definitely proving the more common option now). A few, like Style of Zug, joined the movement of sitting Black Friday out alongside companies like Hiut jeans and Fears watches, but they seemed to be the exception.

Discounting triggers my bloodlust every time

I have a complicated and somewhat dysfunctional relationship with these kinds of events, and with pen discounting generally (as I have written in the past). I do my very best to keep my collection small, avoid impulse purchases, and keep my finances on an even keel. But every damned year it’s the same.

I can’t stop opening the emails in my inbox and seeing the Stories on Instagram. Then I see a big promotion and the bloodlust kicks in, the impulse control goes out the window, and I ride that wave of elation and self-loathing as the order confirmations arrive and my bank balance creates a sick feeling at the pit of my stomach.

The haul

This year I did well, or badly, depending on how you look at it.

I picked up a Platinum trim Montblanc 149 from Wheelers at 20%, which has been on my intended purchase list for some time as I look to finalise my pen collection. I don’t much like gold trim and the platinum 149 hardly ever comes up on the secondary market.

I impulse-purchased a Namisu N1 pocket pen direct at 50% off, which I had been curious to try when the Kickstarter first came out, and it had been out of stock since. A cheaper pen anyway.

I also impulse purchased a Radius from Appelboom at 40%. I’d actually approached Joost some months ago about reviewing one because I was curious to try it but a new brand is not one you want to risk £400+ on. The discount took the risk away.

My first purchase was from Cult, where I saved 30% on a Visconti Homo Sapiens Dark Age. Despite my mixed experiences with Visconti recently I had been planning actively to get some lava back in my pen tray when the rigiht moment arrived… and this was it.

(As it happens I bought jeans, trousers, new glasses and fancy chocolate, too. At least I didn’t buy any new watches.)

Waiting for a discount is a smart move, right?

On the one hand all of these pens had been on my radar to some degree. I had done the thinking, I knew I wanted them, and I was just waiting for them to be at the right price to make the value proposition work. I am happy to have them. In that sense, buying on Black Friday is a good thing, even the sensible thing to do. Certainly buying at a discount helps avoid a loss on future resale, too.

But that’s not quite the full picture.

It’s about control

Promotions like these by design take the control and decision-making out of our hands. They persuade you to buy when the timing isn’t right: many people will have a lot of expenses over the next month for Christmas presents; I personally already have a few pricey pens on the way and I really could have done with holding off on these purchases or staggering them out.

In many cases, where Black Friday stock is limited, you literally haven’t got time to go off and read reviews, do the maths on your finances, think about whether you really need that pen. You have to buy it, or the opportunity disappears. That huge sense of pressure can lead to some bad, or at least half-baked, purchases. I sat and ordered the Montblanc on my phone while sat in the car waiting to pick my kids up, minutes after the email hit.

The potent discounts also mean you end up buying pens that you either don’t really want (if you didn’t want it in your pen tray at full price, why do you suddenly want it at 15% off?), or that aren’t quite what you’re looking for (you wanted it in the blue with an F nib but it’s 30% off in the green with a B nib… which are you going to get?). This, I have learned, is not a recipe for long-term satisfaction.

But I’m a big boy and I can take responsibility for my own silly decisions. I know there’s nobody to blame for the hit on my credit cards except me, and so I have to embrace the feeling of shame just as much as I embrace the feeling of excitement about the parcels arriving.

Are we hurting ourselves, or hurting the industry?

In fact I’m more worried about what this kind of industry-wide promotion does for our hobby and the small retailers that serve it. What does it mean to run something like a site-wide 20% discount at least once a year?

  • It means a slump in orders the week before and the week after a big sale, and a huge spike in workload and stress for small teams processing orders.
  • It means a hit on margin and profitability during the promotion across your stock, even the stuff that was already selling well (remember that sales used to be a way to clear out slow-moving stock).
  • It means training your customers to expect a discount the rest of the year, and to wait to make their purchases during a sale.
  • It means actual costs expended in paid search and paid social to beat competing retailers and raise awareness of the sale.
  • It changes perceptions about how ‘fair’ RRP is, particularly for more luxury brands. If I can get a Visconti for £400 now, why would I ever pay £700 for a Visconti in the future?

Every retailer with Black Friday coming up has to make difficult decisions.

Do we sit it out and watch our competition serve our customers for that weekend while we twiddle our thumbs?

Do we run a token 10% promotion that eats only a little margin but perhaps doesn’t drive much volume?

Or do we go big, crash our website and drive orders with hardly any profit?

Every year these decisions get harder as the scope of Black Friday inflates. Now a 10% discount looks like hardly anything, and if you start your promotions on Black Friday itself, your customers have already been spending themselves silly for a week with your competitors. So next year it’s 20% and a week early; the year after that it’s 25% and ten days.

I know quite a few folks behind brands and retailers and they work hard, with lots of costs, heavy competition, lots of risks in bets they make on stock, and margins that may not be as big as you think. When I get excited and my lizard brain rabidly chases discounts during Black Friday, part of me feels very disloyal to these people, and more than a little sad for them. Because the truth is, they’re caught in the trap just as much as I am.

24 thoughts on “So that was Black Friday. How was yours, pen addicts?

  1. Nice haul and a very well thought out piece Anthony. I’ve always thought that the weeks coming up to Black Friday must be awful for retailers as people stop buying to wait for the deals. One of the tea vendors I use announced a few weeks ago that they wouldn’t be doing BF this year but a number of small offers between now and Christmas. In the past the huge influx of large orders on BF totally overwhelmed their small team and resulted in months of stress dealing with fulfillment issue. Can’t blame their openness and honesty.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful piece and for sharing your BF 2021 experience. As a consumer, it was good to be reminded of the other side of the coin and to empathise with hard working dealers facing extra pressure and less profit margin.
    You have done well to add a couple more highly desirable pens to your finely honed collection and we all love a bargain.
    I spent an evening pouring over the Web sites. Cost aside, I would have liked another Aurora 88 but with the chrome guilloche cap instead of the gold this time. But I managed to resist it. I was also interested in the Aurora 88 small, with cartridge converter and pull off caps. But instead I did some successful nib work on a couple of Cleo Skribents, successfully making these into superb writers. So in the end I didn’t buy anything. No bargains but no buyer’s remorse either.

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  3. I did my bit to even out the strain and placed a modest order with Pure Pens the week before Black Friday – a Jinhao 599 in black. I arranged it with my black Chromebook and back mobile phone and congratulated myself on my colour co-ordination. 🙂

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  4. BF21 has allowed me to buy somethings I couldn’t usually afford and have wanted to try (some spendy skin care products). It has also tipped me over to buy a couple of paper products that have been on my radar for quite a while (Goodinkimpressions) Like you mentioned saw some bargains but if i didn’t want them at full price why purchase just because they were “a good price”. I commend small business’ who chose not to get involved in BF, if is going to be disruptive or margins wont allow then don’t do it just because everyone else is.

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  5. Anthony, I am with you.

    If the BF discount would be on selected items, the models and colors that did not sell well at full RRP, it would be another story. That is OK in my book – it represents the stock risk that brands and vendors run, which justifies the higher margin they make with the normal RRP. But you see mostly a 10-20% on the entire range, which means all your arguments apply.

    It reminds me of a trick an old employer of mine would do at the end of the year: make an early shipment of next spring’s collection to selected vendors so that the invoice would fall in the calendar year, and the turnover would count to make budget…and would count to enable paying out bonuses… That works like a drug, because you need the same shot next year to make next year’s budget.

    However, at the same time, one is tempted…very tempted…why not enjoying a 20% discount if this is how the world turns? One morally strong consumer will not change the practise. And to call for “all” consumers to be morally strong is howling at the wind. And then this logic equally applies for vendors! The inevitability is ironically transparent, and yet it happens.

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    • I don’t think it’s immoral for consumers to take advantage of available discounts. This is a hobby that is mostly driven by consumerism in the first place and I see the discounts more as an approximation of the actual market value once the initial compulsive buyers have already bought their pens (and as Stilo et Stile has shown again this year you can even rope some of them in with an exclusive Black Friday release).

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  6. I think the rest of the year, the retailers benefit from buyers like myself 🙂 Frenzied buying days frustrate me, and I’m impatient and somehow also an overthinker, so I sometimes fail to take advantage of discounts. On FP day, I missed two excellent deals I wanted. I missed one because the pen was on my list but in a different colorway and nib grade, and I took too much time thinking whether or not I should compromise. I decided against it. In retrospect, if I bought the pen, I would have almost certainly resold it (and perhaps made a bit of money), but not buying it is fine. The second time, pen has been on my list for a year and I still hesitated (it’s an Onoto). I ended up going for a completely different pen second-hand, which I probably could have gotten cheaper, but the timing was right and the pen was at the top of my list (that one is en route now). I bought a Ystudio Revolve on FP Day for a good discount and returned it. It wasn’t right for me. As for my Black Friday shopping, I bought a Lamy 2000 in OM from Endless. The Lamy 2000 was not on my list, but it was on my mind. I have a feeling it won’t stay in my collection. Still, I don’t think I will lose money on it. Since I sold a few pens, I am ending the year with the same single Galen Leather tray of pens as I had before. I would have liked to spend less money for some of the pens I got, but I am happy with the pens themselves.

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  7. Anthony,
    Like you, I too succumbed to a Platinum Montblanc 149 from Wheelers. Like you, I also went after the Visconti Homo Sapiens Dark Age from Cult Pens. Unlike you, somebody (no names) beat me to it and it had sold out. I had to get the Bronze Age instead. I’m not bitter, really, I’m not.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hi, yes dry and not giving any particular luxury writing pleasure. My palladium M homo sapiens is way too broad hence opted for the F but they overdid it. A dry western EF. Honestly a semi affordable Pilot 742 SFM overclasses it in writing pleasure.
        However I did try a different Visconti for BF – an Opera in stub and that one is a pleasure indeed.
        And a watch but that is a different matter.

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  8. The reborn Radius was tempting at discount but I don’t expect something vastly different from a leonardo magico (which I have already) with the very same nib

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    • You’re quite right: on paper it’s a midsize screwcap piston-filler with JoWo 14k. I’m hoping for some magic in the package. I had to scratch the itch, if only so you didn’t have to!

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  9. I was so close to buying the Homo Sapiens Dark Ages. The price was fantastic. But I didn’t, and I didn’t actually buy anything. There were a couple of real tempters on Appelboom but again, I resisted.

    As usual, a well written post!

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  10. Excellent post as always. My Black Friday experience ended in a Visconti Homo Spines bronze age in EF from Cult pens, with a few extras ( Clarefontaine envelopes and a set of 16 micro bottles of Diamine ink) . The Homo Sapiens has been a target for years but as I could not find a nice second hand specimen in EF and Bronze age, took the plunge and ordered it.
    It is a motive of reflection in this generally small industry that we are now conditioned to buy only when there is some kind of discount. I think that for example Santini do a great job of pricing very fairly without discounts for most of the year, but this is not a common practice, and the “fair price” now is the heavily discounted one. But this is capitalism, and I do not think we should be too sentimental about it.

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  11. another interesting article. Managed to avoid BF temptation but then I have been waiting for my Gravitas Order since 16th Oct and still no sign!!

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  12. Great post, Anthony! I was waiting for BF for some inks, and splirge a bit. November was a difficult month, in late October i’ve ordered a limited edition pen and saw it discounted 15% for Fountain Pen’s Day, then 20% off for BF! Limite yeah, but was still available. So I could’ve saved some money had it not been for that FOMO, right? This got me a bit upset and wondering whether i was a fool for gettin stuff in September and October when BF was coming…
    Your post got me thinking, because companies need to live all year long, not just in November. So now i’m torn between making a big list and ordering only on special discount ocasions, or go on as until now.

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    • Difficult, innit? I had a similar, non-pen experience. I bought a Sonos Roam as a gift, and a few days later it appeared in Black Friday for £20 off. I kicked myself. When did we develop this weird idea that new, popular, or limited products should be discounted?

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  13. Pingback: First impressions: Radius Superior Corniglia Black fountain pen | UK fountain pens

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