An Opportunity in the Pen Market

I’ve been thinking about the economics of the FP retail market for a good year or so, and one of the things that stood out in the beginning was the gaping hole between US$200-400. There just didn’t seem to be many good FP options for users who were ready to step up from their Lamy 2000s and Pilot VPs but weren’t yet ready for a premium pen. As a believer in (relatively) efficient markets, I assumed that the brands were aware of the gap and that some were probably developing products to fill it. But twelve months on, there hasn’t been a lot of change and the market continues to be underserved.

For today’s post, I thought it would be interesting to go through the first two steps of product development: identifying a gap in the market and working out what sort of product users would want to buy. I’ll also discuss which companies I think are positioned to be successful in this space.

 

The Opportunity

For most new enthusiasts, there’s a relatively common progression: they tend to start with some of the good entry-level pens, like a Pilot Metro or Lamy Safari. Over time, they start to move upward – maybe picking up a Twsbi or a Parker along the way – and eventually settle in the $100-200 range. There’s a lot of good, popular pens to be found in this range: Lamy 2000, Pelikan M200/205, Pilot Falcon, Pilot 74/91/92, Sailor 1911, and – of course – the Vanishing Point. Less common but excellent value are the standard Edison and Franklin-Christoph pens, most of which fall into the $150-200 range. A lot of users could very happily stay in this range forever.

But there are some users who are keen for something more, something better. While there are a few good pens in the $200-400 range – the Pelikan M400 ($325), Pilot 823 ($288) and 912 ($224), Platinum President ($260), Sailor Pro Gear II/Realo ($328), and a smattering of Italians – it’s striking how few of them are really all that desirable. This is particularly true if you’ve already bought the better pens in the $150-200 price range: if you own a 91 or 92, the 912 isn’t going to do much for you – it’s basically the same pen, with an ever-so-slightly larger body and nib. Unless you’re after a specific nib size, it’s definitely not worth dropping $224. The European pens in this range are especially disappointing: if you have tiny hands, there’s a smorgasbord of good German and Italian pens available, but it’s slim pickings if you want something that’s a normal size.

I think most users have a look at this range and don’t find a lot to get excited about – certainly not $300 worth of excitement.  So they end up looking further upmarket and asking themselves whether it’s worth dropping >$500 so they can have a better pen experience by buying a Nakaya (>$500), Montblanc 146 ($650), Pelikan M800 ($600), or Visconti Homo Sapiens ($600). Some users will see something they love and commit to saving up for a premium pen; others will decide it’s not worthwhile, and stick to buying pens under the $200 mark.

It’s this latter group that transform the gap into an opportunity. They are caught between the three tiers: not satisfied by the sub-$200 pens, not excited by the $200-400 pens, and not willing to spend >$500. They are willing to spend $300 or more on a pen – in fact, they are actively trying to spend that money – but are disappointed by what’s being offered. This is an opportunity just waiting to be exploited; all that’s missing is a pen manufacturer to develop a product and can give this user group what they want.

 

The Product

So what sort of product would these users want? I think the minimum expectations would be a full-size pen with a gold nib, ideally a #6, a decent ink capacity – not another cartridge/converter – and excellent quality.

Of course, it also needs to have something special, something with strong appeal that would not only satisfy the users who were already willing to drop $300 but draw in users who are in the $100-200 range. But it can’t just be an interesting or useful feature, like Edison’s filling system or Visconti’s bayonet cap system – those are certainly interesting but they are not providing sufficient value to users coming up from the lower tier. It needs to be something that really draws interest, regardless of your level of experience.

I think this leaves design or materials: these things are what separate the premium pens from the other tiers: the use of unique and distinctive materials (like urushi lacquer or lava) or the crafting of refined designs (like the Meisterstuck and Souveran series) that catch the eye and appeal to the senses.

The good thing about that is the competing products at $300 aren’t strong on design: the other pens are quite plain (eg the Pilot 912) or bold to the point of being gaudy (the Montegrappa Espressione). Users will have mostly had experience of entry-level and advanced pens, of which good design is not a common feature (the Faber-Castell e-Motion and Lamy 2000 being notable exceptions). I don’t know enough about design to say what would work, but am certain this is where the product needs to excel.

Beyond design, the actual experience of the pen – of receiving it, inking it, and writing with it – needs to be special. It needs to feel and perform better than the other pens that the user has used: a smooth, effortless writer that is a joy to use and a pleasure to fill. This means that the build quality needs to be excellent, that the nib needs to be well-made, slightly springy, and – ideally – individually before leaving the factory. The filling system needs to be easy and reliable. It needs to be a package of features that, overall, is easily better than anything else the user owns.

Basically: it needs to be good. Very good. As though you’ve taken a Pilot nib and put it on a Faber-Castell body with the Lamy 2000’s piston. It needs to make a value proposition where users feel like they’re getting something very much like premium pen but at a price that isn’t far above what they’re used to paying. If you can do that, you’ve got yourself a pen that should easily sell to people willing to spend $300 – and will become an object of desire for users still at the $100-200 tier.

 

The Contenders

Now we have identified the gap in the market, we need to think about which brands are actually capable of pulling this off.  Firstly, we’ll rule out Esterbrook, because they already have a product in this range – the Esterbrook Deluxe – that has apparently sold a grand total of zero units. (It’s possible that company doesn’t know what it’s doing.) Some of the Italian brands (Aurora, Delta, Montegrappa, Omas) also have products around the price point which aren’t bad pens but obviously aren’t filling the void, so we’ll exclude them as well. 

We’ll also assume away the other uncompetitive firms. I’d like to believe that they are interested in opportunities but there isn’t a lot of evidence to support that belief, and I’m not sure any of them even have the ability to bring a good, premium product to market. (Prove me wrong, guys!)

I don’t think the premium brands – Graf von Faber-Castell, Pelikan, Montblanc, Nakaya, Visconti – are interested in providing a full-size product at this price. It would cannibalise sales from some of their more expensive products and make them worse off. Similarly, I think some of the brands targeting the lower end of the market – Faber-Castell, Noodlers, Twsbi, etc – aren’t positioned to move upstream: it would be an expensive, risky venture and well beyond their area of expertise.

Finally, I’m not sure that this is something the Japanese big three (Pilot, Platinum, Sailor) would pursue. Their products tend to be of a pretty standard aesthetic – think about the Pilot 74/742/91/92/912/843 – and it’s hard to imagine that they could stick with that aesthetic while also offering users something exciting, something worth dropping an extra $100.

So that leaves us with Lamy and the two remaining American manufacturers (Edison, Franklin-Christoph). Personally, I would love to see all three brands develop new products to compete in this space – it would be an epic battle of creativity, innovation, and design excellence, and I would probably find myself buying all three. But that’s not realistic (unfortunately).

Despite their popularity, Lamy really struggles with this part of the market – their top-end products (the stainless steel 2000 and Dialog 3) don’t get much attention or love, and strike me as more of an afterthought than their core business. As I said in the taxonomy series, I think Lamy have lost their edge in FP design. It’s been a long time since they realised a genuinely innovative, exciting product. This could be a chance for them to make a comeback, however, and they certainly have the production, distribution and promotional networks to support it.

Edison and Franklin-Christoph have a better shot at this – both are small brands, widely respected for their innovation and quality. They have a demonstrated ability to create something users want and love, and could use a flagship product that breaks through the noise and really establishes their brand, like the Homo Sapiens stands out and brings users to Visconti. The main problem is production capacity: there’s no point in having a high-demand, flagship product if you can’t keep up the supply. Franklin-Christoph already struggles to keep their products available and I’m not sure if they have the ability to scale up and support a higher-demand product.

So it seems Edison is in the best position to successfully exploit this opportunity, for quite a few reasons. First, they have some experience with this part of the market (albeit with niche, custom-made products), expertise with unique filling systems, and a reputation for making high-quality products. And as much as I like Franklin-Christoph’s designs – and I genuinely do – Edison seem to have a much better handle on design overall.

Currently, you can pick up an Edison cartridge/converter FP with a gold nib for $275 and, from everything I’ve seen, these are great pens. I see two main things holding them back: first, a range of very niche designs that prevent them from having a broad appeal (and possibly keep Edison from realising economies of scale) and the c/c filling system. If they could find a good, modern design and produce a pen at scale with a different filler, I think they would be in prime position to exploit this gap and establish themselves as one of the most competitive brands in the market.