Retailer Reviews

Admin update: For those of you who saw last week's post about FPN, Wim (FPN's chief admin) has responded in a comment apologising for the practice and announced that the forum was now closed. I'd like to thank Wim and FPN for responding quickly and politely to my concerns. 

There’s a problem faced by a lot of online pen buyers that we’ve probably all faced at one time or other: finding a good deal on a pen that we really want, but hesitating because we don’t know if the retailer is someone we can trust. It’s not that we distrust the retailer or the price, it’s that we just don’t know them or how they operate and it makes us wonder if buying is a good idea or not. For today’s post, I’d like to explore why this problem exists, how it affects the market, and why reviews of retailers could be advantageous for pen buyers, pen sellers, and reviewers.

When this issue arises, I think people solve it in one of three ways: first, they Google the retailer and try to find positive or negative experiences. This is problematic if people are more motivated to share negative experiences (which I believe to be true) as potential buyers won’t have a balanced view and will probably be turned off buying from someone who could actually be trustworthy. Second, the buyer will post on a forum or thread asking for information; while this is no doubt useful to the buyer, it’s not desirable for forums to be clogged up providing information that could be provided elsewhere. The third solution is that some buyers will simply opt to pay more and buy from a retailer they already know.

Of course, this is good for the bigger and better-known retailers but it’s not so good for smaller or newer retailers. If discounts aren’t enough to attract buyers to a new business, they are going to struggle and I don’t think this is a situation that any of us want to see.

To return to my old model of the FP market, retailers compete by offering surplus to buyers – that is, the difference between what we’re willing to pay for a pen and the price. Retailers can offer more surplus in two ways: first, they can lower the price and second, they can increase the value that we get from the product and how much we’re willing to pay. For some buyers, a lower price will be much more valuable to them (particularly if you have a lot of other hobbies and pursuits, and your opportunity costs are high). For other buyers, some additional service – personalised advice, gift-wrapping, etc – will be more valuable. Even if it isn’t intentional, retailers will end up occupying a particular niche where they maximise surplus to a particular group of buyers.

In an earlier post, I explored the idea that buyers discount their estimate of surplus when they are uncertain about the product: if they haven’t handled and used the pen for themselves, they really don’t know what the experience will be or whether it will suit them. When uncertainty is high, the discount will be large and they typically will not buy the product. Reviews play an important role in reducing uncertainty, giving people an idea of the product’s design and performance and allowing them better to estimate its suitability; this then reduces the discount they place on the surplus and will generally make people feel more comfortable purchasing.

Although it wasn’t discussed in the post, uncertainty discounts apply to the product and the retailer: when we are really uncertain about a retailer, we will avoid them even if they are offering a great deal. While product reviews are now basically abundant, retailer reviews are not common; this means that uncertainty about retailers is still higher than it needs to be, and the smaller/less known retailers are probably missing out on sales.

So I think reviews of retailers could be useful for the community, particularly if they help buyers to know what they can expect when they deal with a particular vendor. Reviewers can play a valuable role here in sharing information about the retail experience, what they liked and disliked or what was done well and what was not done so well.

This has benefits right across the community: for buyers, it provides an understanding of where they can buy with confidence and whether a good price comes with good service or whether the retailer is a bare bones operation (like Amazon or MassDrop). For reviewers, it provides a new and useful topic to write about in a way that can help buyers to make informed decisions. And for retailers, it provides exposure and – perhaps most valuably – feedback on what buyers thought of their buying experience.  

That can be an incredibly empowering phenomenon – I think most people in the online market realise that Goulet Pens wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the fact that they were giving their customers a wonderful retail experience and people were communicating this to others – but it might also make some retailers nervous, particularly if they saw the dispute between the widely-respected Brian Anderson (of Anderson Pens) and a user on reddit. The user made a public post slamming the company (“[wish] I had not ordered from them”) and detailing the encounter. Brian* responded and – judging by the vote scores – did a good job of convincing the community that he had handled the encounter fairly. But had Brian not seen the post and responded, this kind of post would have been permanently available for anyone who did a search before buying from the Andersons. It almost certainly would have pushed buyers away to other stores. I imagine that this kind of hit job is probably the main worry of online retailers, particularly if it’s on a forum on a blog that they don’t see and cannot respond to. Promoting more online discussion of the retail experience is, no doubt, going to make some retailers anxious about more hit jobs appearing online.

I don’t think this is inevitable. My belief is that strongly dissatisfied customers are already sharing their experiences online and more retailer reviews are going to bring a lot of positive experiences to light: experiences that show the strengths and value a good retailer can bring to the table, and help to counterbalance any negative reviews. This is a much better strategy for providing buyers with reliable information about retailers than hoping the retailer can find, and respond to, any attacks made online.

I’m hopeful that reviews can make newer buyers more comfortable dealing with retailers and alert more experienced buyers to new retailers or ones that they might not have heard of. Some of the small guys – like Bungbox or Wonder Pens – are really great people, with a genuine passion for what they do, and provide wonderful products and service. If it wasn’t for members of the community talking about their experiences, I would never have known about them.

Similarly, I’m hopeful that these reviews can help people to know when a vendor might not be trustworthy. I had a truly odd and unpleasant experience with one vintage restorer and it wasn’t until another user posted about their own experience that I realised I wasn’t alone. When there are bad eggs in the community, that kind of information ought to be shared and others should know who they are dealing with and what to expect. The wall of silence that existed around that restorer meant that new buyers would not have known that there are far better choices for nib work and vintage restorations. 

At least in my opinion, by sharing these experiences publicly, the vendor can either become aware of how their behaviour is perceived and find new ways to work with their customers and offer a better experience, or the community can learn that those vendors don’t offer value for money or are likely to behave in unorthodox ways. Either way, our community wins when information is freely available and shared. As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. 

Last month, I asked reviewers to review the bad pens that they use as well as the good. Now, I’m asking them to review the buying experience as well as the product experience. Help to get the information out there that can help people make better decisions, better purchases, and experience the best that FPs – and FP retailers – have to offer. 


*Disclosure: I know Brian a little and like him a lot. I've also had disputes with the other user, who I understand has since been banned from the FP subreddit.