Category Update: In the write place

Market forces and shifting consumer behaviour are reshaping the writing instruments category.

At a time when both the business and consumer worlds seem to be marching in quick-step towards an increasingly digitised future, it’s perhaps surprising to see the writing instruments sector surviving as well as it has done. And while you wouldn’t describe it as a buoyant category, key stakeholders still see value and opportunity in it, focusing on product differentiation and innovative new designs to set themselves apart from the competition.

German manufacturer edding, for example, is concentrating on its core markets in Europe and South America. Although key Latin countries such as Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador are somewhat volatile, things are looking better closer to home, especially in Germany, Spain, Switzerland and France. But even Europe is not without its problem areas, as COO Thorsten Streppelhoff admits: “Three countries – Turkey, Russia and the UK – are going through troubled political and economic times, but even here we’re seeing good performances, with the UK business, in particular, growing strongly.”

While recognising that some traditional markets are stagnating, fellow German manufacturer Stabilo is managing to buck the trend and has reported 5% growth in the writing instruments sector over the past financial year. The Asian market has performed well for the company, but again, it has been in Europe where most of its gains have been made, with Spain and Italy in particular delivering stand-out sales increases.

Shifting shopping habits

As mentioned, the UK has its very own challenges and Brexit is certainly having an impact on the mood in the UK, according to Wendy Vickery, Marketing Manager at Pentel: “Our performance over the past year has been very positive, but uncertainty is the watchword at the moment. No one is confident that any government statement made one day will hold true by the end of the week, let alone throughout the coming year. However, although UK growth forecasts have been downgraded and economists cannot agree what the future will bring, day-to-day business carries on. 

“What is certain though, is that the way consumers are shopping is changing, and stationery and office products buyers are no exception. The UK high street, in particular, faces the biggest challenges from the boom in online retailing, with big names disappearing all the time. That said, many traditional businesses and smaller outlets are capitalising on their core strengths and using their expertise and product knowledge to provide a point of difference and give them a commercial advantage. Although the climate remains tough, consumers are still looking to independent retailers to help them choose the right product for specific uses and for new hobbies and interests.”

Reports from the US also show that in-store sales are still an important factor, as Ken Newman, Director of Marketing at Zebra Pen, relates: “The sector as a whole experienced modest gains this year, but is still driven primarily by bricks-and-mortar purchases, with a remarkable 89% of consumers preferring to shop in a store for their writing supplies rather than go online. Although e-tail sales increased their share by 1.3% over the past year, it’s obvious that traditional distribution channels are still critical.”

Riding the creative wave

The rise of bullet journalling – the creation of a record that’s a blend of log-book, planner and diary – remains one of the core factors driving the writing instruments category. “It’s a means of self-expression mixed with organisation and scheduling,” says Newman. “Unlike other writing fads, I believe this is one that will stay the course as it actually has practical value in helping individuals keep things in check when faced with today’s hectic pace of life.

“And while black is still the dominant ink for everyday writing, the trend is towards colour, fuelled by this move for more creative expression; it’s a key factor in market growth. The shift towards gel pens also continues – they now represent 42% of sales compared to 36% for ballpoints, though the latter remain a main product type during the back-to-school season where sales see a surge.”

Edding is also experiencing high demand for products that meet this trend in creative activities, such as journalling and calligraphy, and has been expanding its range in these areas. “Products like permanent sprays and porcelain brush pens have delivered double-digit growth figures for us,” says Streppelhoff. “To capitalise on this trend, we have launched the Colour Happy Big Box – a set including a total of 70 products that can fulfil the requirements of any hobby artist who wants to get started in this creative sphere. Additionally, we’ve started offering ranges more closely tied to specific uses, such as our seasonal colouring set for autumn and winter which contains the types of products people need for decorating and crafting over the festive season.

“Another interesting trend that has gained ground in 2018 was the crossover between our products and the interior design and DIY world. We now regularly launch permanent sprays and pens in fashionable colours to support this. New ideas for items like these often come via feedback from our customers using social media platforms.”

As with other OP segments, environmental concerns are having an impact on the writing instruments category. Some manufacturers have invested in pens made from recycled PET plastics or have created writing instruments from biodegradable materials which will quickly break down once they are disposed of. These items not only appeal to environmentally-conscious customers, but also help a company’s products stand out in a crowded marketplace.

Social media to drive sales

A shift in colour preferences – often backed by strong online marketing campaigns – is another trend in this category. Carolin Vollrath, Digital Sales Manager at Stabilo, describes pastel colours as “the new black”. The company has seen considerable success from offering its classic highlighter pens in these softer, more subtle tones, particularly in Asia and across Europe.

Backed by targeted social media campaigns, Stabilo monitors interior design and fashion styles and then reacts quickly to showcase the products that tap into these. Recent examples include the promotion of its pastel shades in cooperation with social media influencers in the Philippines, which generated considerable local hype. The company scored a similar hit in Spain using Instagram to push its pastel highlighter range, and discussions around this subject became a top-three trending topic.

Vollrath adds: “While these new colours are no substitute for the traditional high-visibility neon colours, they are a very useful addition that drive sales across the entire highlighter range, with this sub-category as a whole enjoying double-digit growth.”

Social media is also being used in other ways across this category. Mitsubishi Pencil in the UK, for example, runs a blog featuring its in-house artist showcasing some of the ways its range of uni-ball products can be used. Plus, it interacts with its customers via the Pinterest and Instagram platforms where consumers can display their creations.

“We want to enthuse our customers,” says Director of Sales & Marketing Paul Smith. “Pens are more than ‘just writing’ to us. Inspiring consumers to get creative through social media networks will be an important point of focus for us in 2019. We will also be continuing our charitable partnership with Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. We’ve raised over £178,000 ($225,000) through the sales of our bestselling uni-ball Eye pens, with the money going towards creative activities for children to aid their treatment and recovery.”

New markets

Away from the traditional writing and creative fields, manufacturers like edding are looking to branch out into other areas, such as the industrial sector. “This is a key growth area for us,” states Streppelhoff. “Our research shows robust demand for high-quality marking applications as well as interesting new opportunities in niche verticals such as medical and other laboratory locations.”

Keen to explore the prospects of transferring its expertise in the marker business to other industries, the company has recently launched its own start-up subsidiary business in Munich, known as edding Tech Solutions. To date, it has two main product lines. The first, known as edding Code, uses conductive ink to print information onto paper, packaging or labelling. It’s invisible to the naked eye, but can be read digitally by a smartphone or other touchscreen device. It offers new solutions for brand authentication, document security, interactive packaging and other marketing and promotional activities by bringing the online and offline worlds together.

The second strand of Tech Solutions is a range of compact printers for industrial marking applications, designed to meet the requirements of Industry 4.0 – the name given to automation and data exchange in manufacturing processes that includes technologies such as the Internet of Things and cloud computing.

“Many industries have a huge requirement for labelling and marking during the production process, such as printing ‘best before’ dates, QR codes or serial numbers on their finished products and packaging,” says Streppelhoff. “These needs simply cannot be met by hand-marking. We’re developing new high-performance printers that can do this for use primarily in the pharmaceutical, food and wood processing sectors.”

Merging analogue and digital

While competition between the analogue world of pen and paper versus the digital domain of tablet and computer will undoubtedly continue, some crossover products are emerging that look to combine the best aspects of both.

‘Smart pens’ use an infrared camera embedded in their nib to record what you write onto special electronic paper – this contains a dot-positioning system that allows the camera to follow the user’s pen strokes. They often include audio recorders for taking voice memos too. Once the pen is replaced in its cradle, it automatically uploads what you’ve written and records it on your computer as a text and audio file.

The Stabilo EduPen is another example of a product that uses digital technology in conjunction with a traditional pen. In this instance, the goal is to help children learn to write. Designed for use in a classroom environment, it operates in conjunction with an app to assess the writing motor skills of an individual child. After a short test using the EduPen on paper, the app evaluates what elements of handwriting need to be improved and automatically assigns suitable worksheets for the teacher to use which are aimed at improving the pupil’s abilities.

Pen power

It’s estimated that the first writing instruments, a wooden stylus used to scratch marks into soft clay, were invented over 5,000 years ago. And it seems that pens and pencils are likely to be with us for some time yet – even if they do get enhanced using digital technology. As Vickery explains: “Their main strength is their simplicity. What’s the worst thing that can happen with a pen? If the ink runs out – simply refill it or replace it. No need to spend hours on user forums trying to fathom out why that morning’s data has been lost at the touch of a button. The demise of the pen is certainly not on the horizon.”