The festive season is upon us again, a time for giving and a time for getting. It’s the most lucrative time of the year for many manufacturers and resellers – OP and otherwise – and therefore the perfect time for launching new products, for pushing the brand… and waiting for the tills to ring.
According to a European-wide study by consultancy firm Deloitte, Europe’s Christmas shoppers plan to spend two percent more on average than last year, with each household expected to splash out €456 ($584) on presents alone.
Of course, festive consumer spirit varies considerably across the region. The Dutch are expected to remain Europe’s stingiest Christmas shoppers, spending €197 per household on presents, while the Irish will be the most generous with €824.
Overall, European consumers are not as gloomy about their economy and prospects as they were last year. Improved confidence is noticeably visible in France due to declining unemployment figures and expected lower taxes. The Greeks also plan to splash out compared to previous years, while the Germans and Italians are Europe’s most pessimistic consumers by far, and are expected to significantly prune their Christmas spending.
Longevity and nostalgia
But spend they all will, to a greater or lesser extent. Writing instruments, desk accessories, and notebooks and other leather-bound items such as Filofaxes have historically made popular Christmas gifts, both corporate and consumer-orientated.
Why is that, you may ask, when the most sought-after products today are tech gadgets like iPods and video games? Well, luxury stationery gifts may never be substitutes for those type of presents, but what’s becoming clear is that the demand for these items is tied in to the need for longevity and a certain sense of nostalgia.
UK-based Aspinal of London sells high-quality, handmade leather products, from document wallets and binders to journals and wedding albums.
Chairman Iain Burton says: "In the world of email right now, there seems to be a certain nostalgia for beautifully printed books and stationery. People love journalling, especially in the US. With everybody having PDAs these days, people are reverting back to small diaries and notebooks.
"This type of paper stationery always makes a great gift because everybody loves to have a nice, beautifully handmade leather book or diary. It’s something that is current as well as very nostalgic and there’s a great attraction for that sort of thing."
He adds: "The Christmas period is critically important to Aspinal. Usually, half of our customers are making self purchases while the other half is buying gifts. This time of the year, it’s probably 100 percent gifts."
Aspinal is currently investigating the opening of its first retail outlet, but for now sells its products through its website, by mail order and through art galleries and museums.
Retail tills ring loudest
Generally speaking, channel distribution during the festive season strongly favours the retailers. Of course, contract stationers have a vital role to play due to the huge importance of corporate gifts. Similarly, the internet is becoming more and more important as a source for ideas, to compare prices and to avoid crowds and queues. But uncertainty over delivery time and fear over fraud with online payments still act as brakes on a full take-off of this shopping platform in the European markets, says Deloitte.
There’s no doubt that it’s the retailers where the tills are ringing the loudest at Christmas, from mass merchants over department stores to specialist shops. Faber-Castell’s manager for the firm’s international key accounts, Karl-Heinz Raue, concurs with that view, certainly as far as high-quality writing instruments are concerned. "Retailers are often located in highly frequented shopping areas, while at the same time offering both well-trained staff and appropriate product presentation. This also applies to a selection of premium outlets in department stores."
Berlin, Germany-based Kaufhaus des Westens (Department Store of the West) – best known as the KaDeWe – is one such store. Mentioned in the same vein as London’s exclusive Harrods, Paris’ Galeries Lafayette and New York’s Macy’s, the KaDeWe claims to be Europe’s largest department store.
With its centenary anniversary next year in mind, the store last September opened its completely new and redesigned stationery and office products segment, all in plenty of time for the festive season. The section spans 13,000 sq ft on the fifth floor of the building and is without a doubt a feast for the eyes of any brand-loving consumer. Names like Montblanc, Caran d’Ache, Graf von Faber-Castell and Dupont alone occupy 700 sq ft of space. Another 2,500 sq ft are given over to a host of other prominent fine writing instrument manufacturers.
As the KaDeWe’s spokeswoman Claudia Gellrich says: "The pre-Christmas period is hugely important for our stationery and OP section. We generate about one third of our total yearly revenues during this period and the number of visitors to this section alone goes up about fivefold during this time, particularly in the month before Christmas."
Manufacturers of luxury writing instruments are one of the core groups within the OP sector that year after year manage to draw the crowds.
Colin McClymont is managing director of The Pen Shop, Europe’s largest chain of writing instrument stores with 26 outlets across the UK. He offers an explanation for why luxury pens are such perennial winners: "Unlike many of the more run-of-the-mill gift items such as perfume, clothing, diaries and so on, a pen is something that can be kept and treasured forever.
"These fine writing instruments are precision-made from the highest quality materials and many can be refilled again and again. Pens often come in beautiful boxes or in their own carrying case and they can be engraved with names or special messages, making them unique to their owner and the gift-giver.
"There are also many pens made with precious metal or encrusted with jewels, and the high-end brands are status symbols in the same way that watches and jewellery are."
For The Pen Shop, Christmas is the busiest time of the year, accounting for 30 percent of overall sales, with Montblanc writing instruments being the biggest sellers.
Germany and France are both countries with a long and varied history as writing instrument hotspots, with Montblanc and Faber-Castell just two of the many names known for their fine writing implements. Switzerland’s Caran d’Ache and the USA’s Waterman are equally prominent brands.
And for some of the world’s most exclusive pens, look no further than the Namiki range, made by Japanese manufacturer Pilot Corporation.
Namiki pens, in fact, are not so much regarded as writing instruments, but as pieces of art – unique and clearly distinguishable from any other pen. Each Namiki pen is handmade and signed by the artist who made the decorative barrel and cap.
As Dominique Taguet from Pilot Corporation Europe says: "Namiki is really at the top of the market for luxury pens. The purchase of a Namiki pen is an investment in time; you buy a Namiki as you would buy a Patek Philippe watch. Christmas is an excellent opportunity for this."
And while Pilot’s Capless and Ageless brands, for example, fall under the more affordable bracket of the vendor’s range, there are those generous givers for whom even a Namiki pen – many in the Emperor range retail at between $5,000 and $8,000 – isn’t a step too far: 30 percent of total annual sales of Namiki pens are generated in the Christmas season. That compares to 40 percent for Pilot’s other high-range pens.
The attraction for high-end stationery gift items is not constrained to any particular market, but spans the continents. Says Faber-Castell’s Raue: "All developed economies with an established Christmas business show a growing demand for gifts like writing implements or art and graphic items. Besides the strong overseas markets such as the US, Japan and South Korea, we at Faber-Castell also currently notice a particularly strong demand in the southern countries of Europe."
Exclusivity is a key aspect of this particular market sector. The Pen Shop’s McClymont explains: "Because we’re a specialist retailer, customers know exactly what they’re going to get when they walk into one of our stores. Many of the products stocked by The Pen Shop are exclusive to us. We also sell them at exclusive prices that aren’t offered anywhere else.
"This Christmas in particular we have focused on gift sets that are only available through The Pen Shop at exclusive prices."
Aspinal’s Burton adds: "Our products are not mass-produced in China or India like many other high-profile brands. They are made exclusively for us, to our designs. The leather is tanned for us by specialist tanneries, for instance, exactly to our specification. If the leather’s wrong, it gets rejected. All the components are brought together to be handmade and hand-stitched, by people who have been doing this since they were 15."
But Burton emphasises that functionality is as much part of a well-rounded customer proposition as the looks of a product.
The emotional aspect of buying luxury office products should also not be underestimated, however. Says Raue: "In the majority of cases, our targeted consumer group already owns various prestigious lifestyle accessories which makes innovative gift-giving a complicated endeavour. Our writing implements are not only aesthetic and decorative, but they also serve as a tool for voicing individual feelings and thoughts. Every time someone receives a writing implement, he or she is also given the opportunity to express something very personal. In addition to that, handwritten messages are becoming more valuable again in our computerised world."
Guided by time
With the exception of the back-to-school season, there’s no other time of year when resellers mount such all-out advertising campaigns – and when consumers are so guided by them. Large-scale seasonal campaigns targeting the glossy lifestyle media and national newspaper supplements appear to be the norm.
In addition, special in-house events help attract visitors. Berlin’s KaDeWe, for example, runs engraving workshops with Caran d’Ache writing instruments over two weekends in December.
In addition to print media advertising, Faber-Castell supports its trade partners with specific window and in-store decoration material. Raue says: "The focus of our marketing campaign is urban professionals and lifestyle-oriented high-income consumers. We believe that especially for this group Faber-Castell offers a broad variety of gift-giving ideas."
As a relatively new company, UK-based Aspinal – created just five years ago – has so far relied on word-of-mouth recommendations rather than spending tens of thousands of pounds on advertising. Burton comments: "For a long time, we’ve been quietly building our products and our structure without doing any major advertising. Almost all of our business comes through existing customers or word of mouth. We haven’t been spending huge amounts of money on advertising so far.
"That said, now that we have a core customer base we believe we’re ready to advertise. We’re now doing a lot of marketing in the glossy magazines, fashion magazines, Sunday supplements, etc. It’s a huge investment and we don’t expect to get it back overnight. We’re building the business on a ten-year plan."
And with consumer confidence recording new highs in the UK market, there’s every chance that five years from now, Aspinal will still be here as a strong force among the luxury gift operators.
May all the tills and bells keep ringing – Merry Christmas!