Writing on the Wall

Five Trends Impacting The Writing Instrument Market Right Now

PensFive trends that are impacting the writing instrument market right now.

Write it down: The popularity of pens is unquestionable.

The most recent ASI Ad Specialties Impressions Survey found that 46% of all consumers in the United States currently own a promotional pen. That's a lot of pens swiped from places like hotels, restaurants, doctor's offices, gas stations, barber shops and more. Even further, put in advertising yield and ROI terms, the cost-per-impression for writing instruments is a tenth of one cent. It's no wonder, then, that distributors sell more writing instruments than every other promotional product that can't be worn.

While T-shirts are the number-one seller for distributors every year, writing instruments garnered an 8% share of the promotional products market last year – representing distributor revenues of nearly $1.5 billion.

But, what are the trends that are making the pen and writing instrument market overall move so fast today? In this article, we lay out five of the biggest factors that are impacting the manufacture and sales of writing instruments right now and for the next few years. Counselor interviewed countless suppliers nationwide to find out what's trending these days in the way of pens, pencils and assorted writing devices.

What we found may surprise you, including some unlikely places of inspiration (Nike sneakers, anyone?) and some thoughts about what companies and end-users really want. Read on to find out which trends are lighting up the writing instruments marketplace.

Get More for Less
"We're kind of gussying up plastic pens to make them look higher-end," says Harris Cohen, CEO of San Diego-based pen supplier All In One (asi/34256). Much of the industry is doing the same. More than anything else, suppliers say they're getting requests for pens that deliver a look and feel that appears expensive but doesn't cost a fortune.

The push for more plush features in less-expensive pens is partly a holdover from an economy that forced companies to get more for less from their promotional product purchases. So now "they want the Rolls Royce look with a VW price," says Rick Perlmutter, president of The Supermatic Line (asi/77040), a supplier in Brooklyn, NY. To that end, Perlmutter says, they're redesigning mid-range pens with lower-cost materials. "We used to sell a lot of heavy brass pens," Perlmutter says. "Now we're going more to aluminum. It's lighter-weight and much cheaper to produce and buy," but still offers the same level of quality that the brass models do.

In addition, the market has seen a bigger demand for better inks and writing experiences at a lower price point. The industry has responded with a series of hybrid inks. "Everyone has their own name for it," says Norwood and BIC Graphic North America's (asi/40480) Laura High, the senior trade marketing manager for the Clearwater, FL-based North American division of the company.

At some companies it's Easy-Glide and at others it's InkJoy, but the goal is the same: to boost the writing experience of a ballpoint pen.

At BIC, the Easy-Glide System is in high demand, says High. The appeal of ballpoints with inks that make them write more smoothly is a huge trend, High says, and one the industry is leveraging to remain more competitive. Its appeal is understandable.

"Once you write with that ink technology," she says, "it's hard to go back to the ballpoint because it's so smooth."

PensThe Effect of Consumer Markets
Recently, All In One's Cohen went shopping and took note of new design elements. But, not in pens. Instead, Cohen says, he drew inspiration from clothes, shoes, even cars – all items that are showcasing exciting new colors and styles that can be transferred to writing instruments.

In fact, these days, many experts say, products (all kinds of products) within the consumer marketplace are as much of a driver in pen styles and colors as anything else. Cole Haan shoes and Nike sneakers with bright neon trim or colors lining shoe soles have been inspiration for All In One's collection, as well as the pearlescent hues Cohen's seen on some of today's luxury autos, such as Porsche and Lexus.

Currently experimenting with more luminous, luxury colors on pen barrels, Cohen says, the company is simply responding to a market demanding colors and styles seen in retail venues. In an industry known to follow the consumer marketplace by a year or more (historically, "ad specialties trends trail by 18 months," says Dan Townes, president of Shepenco (asi/86850), in Shelbyville, TN), the trick to being competitive in writing instruments is to "figure out what's a trend before it's a trend." Something, he says, household and high-end retail brands allow him to do.

"There's always a relationship between what's happening in the consumer markets and promotional products," says High, which is helping to drive the current trend of seasonal colors – tangerine for fall, for example.

Suppliers can even take a cue from women's fashion by adopting "nude" from many of the platform pumps popularized in women's footwear today, High adds. An unlikely color choice for a pen, she admits, "but when you see a color as fashionable as that, you'll find a way to include it in the promotional products marketplace."

Multifunction Appeal
Pointing toward the need for more bang for their promotional buck, industry experts say that one of the biggest writing instruments trends in the market today is the push for multifunction items. Indeed, a pen on its own often isn't enough for savvy buyers who are looking for their promotional products to offer end-users multiple opportunities to pick up and use an item.

"We've got pens that are part of a keychain. Ones that have a stylus tip on the end. Pens that have lights on the end of them," says Bill Mahre, president of Saratoga Pens (asi/97270), a supplier based in Hugo, MN, that's part of Top 40 supplier firm ADG Promotional Products. Those products, Mahre says, "aren't going to change the marketplace fundamentally," but they represent an increasing niche in one corner of the market that's eager for more versatility within the writing instruments category.

Of course, largely driving the popularity of dual-purpose items is technology (who doesn't own a touchscreen product of some type today?), say suppliers, and it's a trend they say is steadily growing. That movement is being accentuated in the ad specialties arena because dual-purpose pens in this market often have a lower price point than in the consumer market.

Again, in a market looking to get more for less, the idea of a stylus or other purpose is gaining traction simply because in the promotional product business, people always expect they'll get something better than in the store for less money.

More to the point, having additional functionality is "an excuse for people to buy pens again," says Perlmutter.

Made-in-the-USA Expansion
Despite China's manufacturing dominance, in recent years it's become more popular in certain ad specialty segments to produce items in America. That trend is increasing among writing instruments, says Cohen, predicting it will become "a groundswell." And not just in certain elements of pen manufacturing, but in every aspect of it.

Cohen is so convinced the trend is here to stay that recently All In One went through a three-week audit to certify that its writing instruments are not only produced in America, but assembled here as well. Cohen attributes the growing concern for domestically-made products as a push to create more economic opportunities for small-business owners based in the U.S.

"I really feel strongly that if people have a choice and they see you've been audited and have certification, people are willing to say, ‘I'm going to go ahead and buy something American for a change,'" Cohen says.

It's likely this year's election will push that sentiment further, experts say. And while many suppliers say they didn't see an influx of campaign-based pen sales in the first half of 2012, they're predicting a surge in election-related writing instrument sales leading up to the November election. When that happens, it's predicted that many distributors will be asking for writing instruments that are made in the USA.

Customization Counts
The fact that BIC Graphic North America's manufacturing plant is located in Clearwater, FL, and not in the middle of China, means "we have a lot of production flexibility," High says, because "we make all the components."

That's important in a market where distributors and their clients are increasingly asking about how writing instruments can become more customizable. Thanks to advancements in full-color applications, items like pens are now being produced with more colors than ever, as well as photos and other sophisticated design elements imprinted on barrels, says Saratoga's Mahre.

"It allows companies to get a bigger message on the pens themselves, so it's very cost-effective," Mahre says, adding he's seen companies replicate business cards on pens and even "a picture of their facility and their people."

In what he calls a "high-definition imprint," today's digital capabilities are "only limited by your own imagination." That kind of technology allows companies to be more competitive by offering pens as more powerful promotional tools. For example, Mahre says, he's seen companies personalize pens for conferences down to the conference attendee's name on each pen. The trend is so popular, he adds, that his company is seeing 10% to 20% growth a year in customization orders.

Customization is also appearing in pen details and ink colors. Brighter colors are showing up in an assortment of orders, says Jay Soltan, director of sales for Lakewood, NJ-based supplier GMG Pen (asi/55583). Companies want "something that's a little more alive than a typical pen," says Soltan, reflecting a trend in writing instruments that's calling for companies to stand out in new ways with ad specialty items.

Yes, there are traditional orders that will never change (think blue for financial firms), but industries such as nursing, which has long opted for purple, Soltan says, are starting to spread to other pen and pencil colors.

While some of these trends may indicate a resurgence of past highlights, they all reflect a new twist in an expanding marketplace where competition is increasing. Says BIC's High, "There's so much competition out there that people are just trying to reinvent writing instruments and keep them new and fresh."

– E-Mail: betsycummings23@gmail.com