Fine Writing Instruments:True Signature Style

In today’s world of E-mail, faxes and photocopies, a message, a proposal, even a signature can be transmitted electronically at the touch of a button. Gone are the days of handwriting multiple drafts of a memo. Even zipping off a quick letter to a friend is more likely done by computer than pen and paper. With computer networks, bulletin boards and on-line publications, we are entering an age that threatens (or promises) to be paperless. Of what use, then, is a fine writing instrument?

Perhaps the less someone needs an item, the more decadent and appealing it becomes to own. Today, fine pen manufacturers position their wares as more than functional writing tools. They’re marketed as a status symbol, a personal statement of style.

“A wonderful pen is a consumer status item,” says Sumner Dorfman of D.L. Dorfman’s & Sons in Boston, Mass. “The guy who drives a Mercedes … you just look at him differently.”

Like a good watch or expensive shoes, a fine pen makes a statement, says Joel Blumberg, president of Kenro Industries, exclusive U.S. distributor of Italy’s Aurora pen line and Japan’s Platinum line. “The pen is becoming an item like a watch for a professional who wants status,” he says. “You would not want to carry your papers to a business meeting in a paper bag. Nor would you want to close a business deal by taking out an inexpensive disposable pen.”

Pen manufacturers maintain that a high-quality pen says its owner pays attention to details and expects quality.

As a fashion statement, a fine pen sets its owner apart from the masses – it boasts individuality. “You used to see a lot of matte black or gray finishes. Now pens have a lot of fashion to them,” says Vicki Hearing, public relations manager for the Waterman and Parker pen lines of Gillette Co. “So many people want an instrument to reflect who they are.”

But status and fashion aren’t the only reasons people buy fine pens. “People are really interested in handwriting,” offers Hearing. “It’s the last personal thing left. In a business letter, the only personal statement is the signature. People pay attention to it. Is it neat? Is it messy?”

Then there’s the experience of writing. “When you write something by hand, you do it slower – you have to think,” says Hearing. “When you think about it, you’re more careful.”

Are they for you? Well, of course pens are nice – but should you carry them in your jewelry store?

Writing instrument retail sales in all types of outlets totaled $3 billion in 1993 (the latest figures available from the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association in Marlton, N.J.). That’s a sizable market that has held fairly steady for five years and in fact grew 5% in 1993 (see JCK, November 1994, page 42).

But not all retail jewelers are sold on the idea of carrying fine writing instruments. Nearly half of the respondents to a recent poll of the JCK Retail Jewelers Panel do not plan to buy any pens this year (see JCK, January 1995, page 77). And of those who plan to buy pens, only 1% will buy a sizable number. On the other hand, nearly 40% of the respondents do plan to buy at least a few pens this year.

Why should you consider adding pens to your product mix? Here are several reasons to consider:

· Many stores don’t carry fine writing instruments, so offering a good selection can help to differentiate a jeweler from competitors.

· A jeweler who offers pens can attract collectors who might not otherwise come into the store.

· Pens have tremendous add-on potential. Customers who buy jewelry may decide to treat themselves to a pen as well.

· Pens are good gifts. They’re always politically correct, perfect for corporate gifts, for the person who has everything and for someone who is excruciatingly particular.

Concerned about exclusivity? Some suppliers are sensitive to that concern. Montblanc, for example, limits distribution to retailers it feels are a good fit with the product. In fact, the company updated and reintroduced its authorized retailer program just last fall.

“We want to provide the consumer with the best possible service,” says Wayne Kingsland, vice president of Montblanc, North America. “We’ve developed a distribution base that focuses on specific service aspects.” Authorized Montblanc dealers maintain an image and decor compatible with high-end products and writing instruments. That image is not present in warehouse stores or catalogs, he says. Authorized dealers also must maintain an assortment of the product and offer a competent staff that can be trained to act as knowledgeable advisers to pen customers.

Another reason Montblanc stepped up its program was to combat the “gray market,” which Kingsland describes as “parallel marketing of products through unidentified locations.” Montblanc warned customers about the dangers of buying merchandise through unauthorized channels in full-page ads in December issues of The New York Times, USA Today and Canada’s Globe & Mail. Kingsland says it’s important “to give authorized retailers the support they deserve so they can give the customers the support they’re looking for.”

Success stories: Grebitus & Sons, a retail jeweler in Sacramento, Cal., has had success with pens and other non-jewelry gift merchandise. In fact, the company created a Corporate Gift Division six years ago to cater to companies that buy a high volume (10 or more pieces) of gifts and awards for employees. These corporate gifts often are personalized with a company logo, slogan or message. Crystal awards are the biggest seller, but fine writing instruments account for a sizable 15%-20% of the division’s total sales.

The retail and corporate divisions of Grebitus are separate, but they do interact. The regular retail sales department offers a few pens from A.T. Cross and Montblanc, while the corporate gift case shows 15 pens from A.T. Cross, Montblanc, Sheaffer, élysée, Recife and others. The company also has catalogs from most major manufacturers and will special-order pens for customers. The best price points for retail and corporate customers range from $50 to $100; rollerball and ballpoint pens retailing for less than $75 are the most popular.

Beth Brunssen, administrative assistant in the corporate division, says pens often are ordered on memo, then the company buys and regularly stocks those that “get a lot of attention.” Next year, the corporate division plans to produce its own catalog showing merchandise and how it can be personalized. The catalog will be mailed to customers and available in the store.

The type of pens you carry should reflect your customer base. That’s the philosophy at high-end D.L. Dorfman’s & Sons, located in a prestigious area across the street from Boston’s Ritz-Carlton and next door to a Giorgio Armani store. Sumner Dorfman says his salon-type store is furnished with fine antiques and features an extensive writing instrument collection that includes examples from such lines as Montegrappa, Cartier and limited-edition Sheaffers. “The pens we carry are appropriate for the type of clientele we have,” he says.

Rollerball pens dominate his writing instrument unit sales and fountain pens his dollar volume. While price points range from $150 to $1,000, the majority of pens sold in the store are at the higher end.

Dorfman says pens sell well year-round. The company does very little corporate business; most of his writing instrument customers are men buying pens for themselves and as gifts. Dorfman talks of “men’s toys: watches, cars, cuff links and pens.”

He also notes that few of his writing instrument sales involve customers who actually come into the store for a pen. Most are there to buy something else when a pen catches their eye. “Pens are incongruous items,” says Dorfman. “People who want high-fashion, expensive jewelry don’t come in to buy a pen, just like they don’t go into a supermarket to buy hardware. It’s not the place they’d think to go. But if you have pens in stock, they might buy one. I sold a $1,000 pen yesterday to a client who was in the store [to buy something else]. He saw the pen…and it was wonderful to have it for him.”

Dorfman devotes a full display case (about two feet wide and on a pedestal) to pens. Asked how he determines how much space to dedicate to writing instruments, he offers “space yields sales.”

Selling tips: Retailers and manufacturers offer these additional tips on selling fine writing instruments:

· Make sure salespeople are knowledgeable about pens. What’s the difference between a rollerball and a ballpoint? How does the nib of a fountain pen affect the way it writes? What type of guarantee does the pen carry? Why is this pen so expensive? Your customers will have questions and your sales staff should be well-trained to answer them.

· Use your fine pens in the store. Because pens are a good add-on item, make sure customers see them! Writing up a sale with a fine pen or letting customers borrow your pen to sign a charge slip is a subtle way to call it to their attention.

· Let customers write with different pens. Nothing sells a pen better than the way it writes. Pens should be a statement of personal style, a true signature. Different people will prefer different nibs, weights, finishes. Let the customer find something that feels wonderful in his or her hand.

· Treat pens as carefully as you would jewelry. Some pens cost as much as (or even more than) some fine jewelry. Perceived value is critical. A pen that is dropped, left on the counter or treated carelessly doesn’t appear to have much value.

· Keep pens clean. They will be handled often and should be cleaned just as often. A pen with dirt and smudges looks used and unattractive.

· Take advantage of marketing and sales assistance offered by manufacturers. Some manufacturers allow jewelry stores to buy pens on memo. Many offer point-of-sale displays, catalogs, display cards, direct mail, sales and training materials and co-op advertising opportunities.

TRADITIONAL ELEGANCE, CONTEMPORARY FLAIR

Old is new.

Pen manufacturers claim a renewed interest in returning to the basics in pen styles and finishes. Vintage finishes such as marbleized lacquer are the latest trend, says Vickie Hearing of the Gillette Co., which offers the Waterman and Parker pen lines. Consumers also are interested in “old-fashioned” sterling silver, vermeil and 18k gold pens, says Jacob Murad, president of Montegrappa.

But don’t forget that a pen reflects its owner’s personality and individuality, so some customers will find greater interest in sleeker, more contemporary designs.

Traditional: For the customer interested in traditional pens, the Gillette Co. has the Parker line.

Montegrappa offers the Reminiscence line of traditional cylindrical and octagonal shaped pens in sterling silver, vermeil and 18k gold. It also introduces a traditionally styled theme collection each year, available only that year (the theme for 1995 is Romeo and Juliet). It also will introduce a limited edition of 1,912 dragon pens this year to commemorate the company’s founding in 1912.

Some other pen manufacturers who offer traditionally styled pens include Montblanc, Sheaffer, Dunhill, S.T. Dupont, Cartier and A.T. Cross.

Non-traditional: Pen manufacturers also offer designs for consumers seeking the non-traditional. “Waterman pens appeal to people who like European fashions, style and color. [The pens] really reflect their French heritage.” says Hearing. “These customers have a great desire and flair to be an individual. They don’t like the traditional gray business suit. … They like to make a statement.”

Colibri finds its coordinating sets particularly popular. Pens, pencils, business-card cases, key rings and letter openers are designed to coordinate in any combination. Colibri sets cost up to and over $100 retail.

Élysée’s Impressions No1 and No2 from the Vernissage Collections feature the work of artist/jewelry designer Manfred Eberhard. In Edition ’90, from élysée’s Parthenon line, more than 170 geometric shapes are inlaid into a brass base. Other selected pens in élysée’s best-selling Parthenon line include the Bi-Colour (gold/platinum), Fine Line (gold-plated) and the Laque Classique (colored lacquers with gold-plated decorations).

The Lamy pen from Hampton-Haddon is contemporary and high-tech, says the company’s Mike Pacheco. Its twin pen, on the market for seven years, combines a ballpoint pen and mechanical pencil into one instrument.

Other popular, fashionable pens: Montblanc, Sheaffer, Kenro Industries’ Platinum and Aurora lines and Yukari Jewelry’s Namiki line.

To contact:

Cartier Inc., Two Corporate Dr., #440, Shelton, Conn. 06484-6234; (203) 925-6400.

Colibri and Dunhill, 100 Niantic Ave., Providence, R.I. 02907; (401) 943-2100, fax (401) 943-4230.

A.T. Cross Co., One Albion Rd., Lincoln, R.I. 02865-3700; (401) 333-1200.

Élysée, 21900 Plummer St., Chatsworth, Cal. 91311; (818) 882-3724, fax (818) 882-3767.

Gillette Co. (Parker Pen Co. and Waterman), Stationery Products Division, 101 Hunting Ave., MP23, Boston, Mass. 02199; (617) 421-8383, fax (617) 421-8099.

Hampton-Haddon Marketing Group (S.T. Dupont and Lamy pens), 4700 Wissahickon Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19144; (215) 438-1200, fax (215) 438-8287.

Kenro Industries (Aurora and Platinum lines), 114 Old Country Rd., Suite 300, Mineola, N.Y. 11501; (514) 741-0011.

Montblanc USA, 75 North St., P.O. Box 518, Bloomsbury, N.J. 08804-0518; (908) 479-1600.

Montegrappa, 923 S. Maple Ave., Glen Rock, N.J. 07452; (201) 612-0151.

Namiki, c/o Yukari Jewelry, 60 Commerce Dr., Trumbull, Conn. 06611; (203) 381-4700.

Sheaffer Inc., 269 S. Main St., Providence, R.I. 02903-2910; (401) 751-7970, fax (401) 751-5538.