Although the effect of COVID that struck all areas of the workplace supplies industry has waned, the impact of the war in Ukraine, rampant price inflation and the cost of living crisis is ongoing. It has produced an even more demanding landscape for the writing instruments category, with manufacturers in particular experiencing the brute force of this trio of challenges.
As Pentel Director of Sales UK & Ireland Graham Craik puts it: “We would really like 2023 to be a period of peaceful consolidation when we can focus on our key priorities of products and customers, rather than firefighting the latest problem facing the business.”
For Mitsubishi Pencil Co UK, 2023 so far has remained on par with 2022, but the signs are encouraging and the expectations are for a record year. The company has managed to stay ahead of the curve. Sales increases have made it the leading rollerball vendor in the UK while additionally picking up market share in the arts & crafts sector.
On this latter point, Rob Harradine, Head of Sales and Marketing, explains that the arts & crafts sub-category has been “enormously productive” over recent years, particularly the paint marker, chalk marker and fine liner pen ranges. “Our water-based POSCA Paint Markers have proven a real success for us due to exponential growth,” he adds.
Scaled to fit
Dealer groups portray a similarly rosy picture, albeit with modified ordering habits such as a demand for small pack quantities due to hybrid working. Nemo Office Club told Workplace360 that pens continue to represent a significant part of its members’ business. For example, Pilot Pen sales are running at a 170% increase year on year, much of which is derived from the retail sector, but not exclusively.
The group’s Managing Director Tim Beaumont believes the writing instruments category is enjoying a renaissance in the post-pandemic era, demonstrating robustness despite the economic pressures of the past few years. “Many companies are looking at employee activity from a mental well-being perspective and have identified some real benefits of using a pen for
note-taking. This provides a break from the computer screen and removes digital distractions which may hinder productivity,” he adds.
He further notes that, like all traditional stationery, selling pens is no longer about shifting bulk at the cheapest price. Instead, he says, it’s all about determining opportunities, selling solutions and marketing the appropriate products to the right target audience – whether B2B, online or retail.
Dealer group Office Friendly offers a similarly optimistic view of the market: category figures are starting to rise to about pre-COVID levels, even when current inflationary pressures are taken into account. Purchasing Manager Simon Webb states the “outlook is improving”.
Although the mood is buoyant, the elephant in the room revolves around affordability, with the cost of living crisis exerting an understandable effect on purchasing habits.
Manufacturers have responded, ensuring products remain popular even under economic constraints. Pentel, for example, has seen significant sales increases in the iZee economy ballpoint pen series, with the recent launch of the latest member of the 4 colour pen option massively exceeding forecasts.
The business supplies channel for writing instruments remains sturdy overall and dealers are being urged to stay engaged. Says Craik: “For the Pentel brand, there is no doubt that direct, personal face-to-face contact with customers delivers successful growth – far more than an app or telesales would. We encourage dealers to collaborate with the sales team to drive our mutual business, supported by promotions, POS displays, samples and product training.”
Banking on innovation
Far from being static and staid, some writing instruments vendors are embracing technology, while all are exploring new commercial and consumer markets. The BIC Rocketbook is a prime example. It looks like a traditional notebook but connects written notes to cloud services through the Rocketbook app and is endlessly reusable.
Nemo Office Club dealers have been promoting the Rocketbook through the group’s multichannel programmes. According to Beaumont, rather than hijacking sales from BIC’s traditional stationery range, it has in fact enhanced brand awareness and resulted in more enquiries, especially for BIC’s 4 Colours pens.
Unsurprisingly, colour and creativity remain key trends as people continue to contend with troublesome times. On the rise since the start of COVID, consumers are using writing instruments as a way of expression, according to the Writing category team for Newell Brands.
In this respect, the company’s Gel pens segment continues to strengthen, with the Sharpie S-Gel driving both the category and share gains forward. “The UK has been behind the US with gel adoption, but the Sharpie S-Gel has gained momentum and Newell now holds nearly 40% share of gel.”
One area of innovation where the writing instruments sector leads the way within the workplace supplies industry is sustainability. Every manufacturer is maintaining a firm eye on the creation of increasingly eco-friendly offerings. For Jan Van Belleghem, Managing Director at office supplies purchasing alliance Interaction, it’s crucial for brands to ensure writing and correction products are made with recycled or plastic replacement materials – fillers like rice husk or paper fibres – to reduce the amount of virgin plastic used.
Office Friendly’s Webb agrees, adding: “It’s not just packaging but the product components that need to be in tune with the environment. Throughout the whole industry, being able to demonstrate reputable green credentials is becoming extremely important and customers are prepared to pay a premium.”
Vendors continue to rise to the challenge, with plenty of new writing instruments to add to their existing repertoire. Mitsubishi Pencil Co UK, for example, has released a recycled version of its uni-ball Eye Rollerball – uni-ball Eye Ocean Care – which is made from 75% recycled plastic, 10% of which is from ocean waste.
Meanwhile, almost all of Pentel’s entire range now includes plastic-free, recycled and recyclable cardboard packaging. The vendor also launched a recent addition to its EnerGel line, the Eco 96% rollerball pen, which is manufactured using 96% post-consumer plastic waste.
Says Craik: “Eco-friendly pens are very much in demand and are absolutely key to the future of our business and the planet. Over the past few years, Pentel UK has made huge progress in making our products as environmentally friendly as possible.”
Sustainability is a high priority for India-based vendor Luxor. The company has launched a certified set of writing instruments under the EcoLogo/EcoWrite banner. The company also gives customers the option of receiving items in a 100% post-consumer waste format approved by the Global Recycled Standard.
While there is pressure from uncontrollable market forces at play, the writing instruments sector is proving to be resilient. The solution is to stay on top of trends and take advantage of extended product ranges.
Back-to-school (BTS) continues to be an essential selling period for the workplace supplies industry and the writing instruments category in particular. However, education-based sales are shifting and becoming much less focused on one season. BTS, notes Nemo Office Club Managing Director Tim Beaumont, used to be the peak time for writing instruments. Now, he says, the greatest demand is around exam time as the traditional return-to-school purchasing period tends to be spread more throughout the term.
It is a sentiment echoed by Pentel Director of Sales UK & Ireland Graham Craik: “Although back-to-school remains a key event for us, we find students heading back-to-college or university, including Freshers’ Week, represent an increasing part of our business.”
While the general market growth for value packs has filtered into the school season, concerns have been raised about some retailers reducing their BTS offerings. Says Luxor Managing Director Stephen Cafferty: “Back-to-school is important for the writing instruments category, especially the retail sector. Lamentably, many of the large chains and discounters have ‘downsized’ and the result is that some resellers are unable to achieve minimum order quantities.”
As private label consumption declines, the Writing category team for Newell Brands believe brands are the linchpin to winning BTS: “It’s not necessarily about the lowest price, it’s about the best value option for buyers on quality and price.”
Despite a lengthening trading period, the traditional BTS season remains a cornerstone for product pushes and new launches. Mitsubishi Pencil Co UK, for example, says BTS forms a crucial part of its campaigns and promotional opportunities. “Our eco products will be marketed extensively throughout the 2023 BTS period and the POSCA Paint Marker range will also feature heavily,” explains the company’s Head of Sales and Marketing Rob Harradine.
“In 2022, we saw new customers try the POSCA markers during this time with great success. This year, even more customers will be pushing the line.”