Fountain pen industry and the effect of the pandemic thereon – are things really as hunky-dory as they are being made out to be?
I am often accosted with the question, “How has the pandemic affected the fountain pen industry in India?”. Honestly, there isn’t a ready answer that I can rattle off, for there is none.
And there are reasons why the entire eco-system is muddled the way it is. For one, the fountain pen industry (if at all, it can be called an “industry”, that is), is too small, too scattered to boot, and generally unorganised, to even warrant any attention. Yes, to some like us they are of perennial interest, but we represent the exceptions, not the rule. I am deliberately not using the term “insignificant” more out of sheer solidarity with the fraternity, than for anything else. Besides, most fountain pen operations are closely-held, family-run enterprises that are extremely chary of divulging the details, any details, about their businesses. Competitors being what they are and the laws not offering the kind of refuge that small businesses would ideally like to enjoy, one cannot blame them for being what they are, but the fact remains. That hardly any new blood has been introduced into the system over the last so many years, at least not enough to make a significant difference, is another reason why the segment largely continues with the mentality of retailers, often losing sight of the woods for the trees – that too, those that have convinced themselves to look beyond the village boundaries.
For such an “industry”, the pandemic has literally been a mixed bag. Yes, demand for fountain pens have gone up, some say, through the roof, as many people, forced indoors, had taken them up to while away their time, to keep depression at bay. The super optimists among us think that the trend will lead to many new users getting converted and become long term fountain pen fanatics, but that is beside the point.
Point is, the pandemic has hit the industry and hit it bloody hard.
For one, brick and mortar stores that were, before the pandemic, just about eking out a living as pen and ink sellers, have mostly gone under. Yes, ecommerce sites have proliferated in the last two years, but are they enough to fill the void created by the sad demise of the friendly neighbourhood stationer? As seasoned retailers from the digital space (not necessarily from the stationery trade) point out, at least some of the new ecommerce sites that have come up, have got their numbers wrong and are yet to deploy enough resources, or merely exist long enough, to win the loyalty of the customers. The expertise to win it in the digital space, is also conspicuously absent in most. The result, experts ominously predict, will be littered on the streets in the not-so-distant future.
Secondly, the small fountain pen manufacturers, hand turners and single lathe machine operators, have been, almost to the last man, forced to the brink. Customer loyalties, built painstakingly over years have been shattered irretrievably as the lockdown has forced production schedules to go haywire. Standing orders have been cancelled left, right and centre, backlogs have piled up and logistics have been hit for a six. Even regaining the numbers that were normal in the past, now looks to be nothing more than a pipe dream. I will not take names, but anybody who is aware of the inside story, can easily understand who all I am alluding to.
Remember the time when the migrant workers were seen trudging their way back to their respective home states? Well, fact is that most have not come back and there is a huge shortage of trained manpower – and this is particularly true for the brands that have mechanised operations. Before proceeding further, me feels, that we should stress on one fact here. The key differentiator here, the one that will separate the men from the boys, will be the orientation of the management. Those that have been taking their branding and other related issues seriously will continue to buck the trend, while the others will sink without a trace. Example? Look at Click. The tough got going when the going got tough and the brand now has made impressive inroads into the highly competitive US market, even while others are fighting to retain their home bases!
Add to the sorry state that the industry is in, the fact that raw materials are in short supply and the proverbial icing on the cake will be complete. Let us not even broach the topic of ebonite rods. And, that more-or-less explains the quagmire that the mid-segment pen turners are in.
But the sceptics will not be convinced. They will point out that William Penn has just reopened its flagship Koramangala store and that the management is gung-ho about the future. They will also point out how the nine, numbered Ganesha pens, hand-crafted by Lotus were sold out within half an hour. And they would be right.
Point is, the recovery from the pits to which the pandemic had pushed the industry into, will not resemble the “V” graph as we normally expect. Quite on the contrary, the recovery will resemble a “K” – where the top end will zoom (and William Penn and handcrafted “excusive” pens are certainly top end), while the middle (at least most) and the lower end will continue their downward spiral.
The writing on the wall? Simple – a huge shakeout is on the way, perhaps one that is worse than the one that had wiped out an earlier generation in the 1990’s. It will be a pure Darwinian play – the rich and the mighty will not only survive, but also thrive, while the weak and the struggling bite the dust.
The advice? Get your acts together while there is time. Accept the fact that quality is not an accident. Invest in your Brand. Build the narrative. Create customer experiences that matter. Think long term. And keep those fingers crossed.
And join me as I pray that I am wrong.