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.
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.