The Next Generation

What’s most popular in writing instruments today, and where is the market headed? We asked seven suppliers of writing instruments to detail the biggest trends impacting pen sales, and to reveal some surprising facts about the growing product category. Check out what they had to say. By Sara Lavenduski

It's a digital world out there. According to a study by marketing research firm eMarketer, the number of people who own smartphones rose above 1 billion in 2012, and is expected to reach 1.75 billion by the end of 2014. Nowhere is this more obvious than the long lines of people waiting, often for days, to buy the new iPhone 6, introduced in September.

The expansion of technology and digital communication is actually working to expand uses for writing instruments. In fact, according to the most recent ASI Ad Impressions Study, writing instruments were the most-received ad specialty item across North America, Europe and Australia. Fully 56% of Americans own logoed writing instruments, thanks to their extreme usefulness and ubiquity.

Ultimately, what office or home or consumer-facing business (restaurants, hotels, bars) doesn't use a pen or writing instrument every single day? None, which is why interest in the item as a promotional product has never waned.
    Trends, though, do take shape in any product category. The makeup of the items shift, the markets they're sold to can change over time, and what buyers want from the products can certainly go through generational shifts. Indeed, who would have thought many years ago that writing instruments would become like Swiss Army knives and provide as many different functions as they do today?

Counselor wanted to take a pulse of the writing instruments market as it exists today – as well as where it's headed. We convened a panel of executives from seven writing instrument supplier firms to find out their views on current demand for the category, their outlooks for the items, and how technological developments have compelled pens to evolve, resulting in refreshing new takes on the traditional ballpoint.

Economic Outlook

The panel of supplier executives was unanimous in its belief that the writing instruments sector is poised to continue its upward climb. "Our economic outlook for promotional writing instruments sales is extremely positive," says Laura High, senior marketing manager for Top 40 supplier BIC Graphic USA (asi/40480), who cites insurance, real estate and business services as the sectors that are most frequent purchasers of promotional writing instruments today. "We're seeing strong trends in the writing instruments business, which have unlimited potential over the coming years."

As writing instruments have proved to be a cost-effective medium for marketers to use to get their messages in the hands of customers, suppliers say they believe the product category is one that will remain attractive to buyers in the coming years.
    "We predict a steady increase in sales of writing instruments for the market overall," says Heather Smartt, global merchandise manager for Bullet (asi/42424), Polyconcept North America and the company's international arm, PF Concept. "They're a consistent and effective way to leave an impression for all end-users."

Even further, some suppliers believe that the expansion of product offerings and the innovation involved in the manufacturing of pens recently have created new opportunities for distributors to promote the category.

"We see a strong market for writing instruments next year," says Joseph Fleming, president and CEO of Top 40 supplier Hub Pen Co. (asi/61966). "There have been some exciting innovations in ink chemistry, especially for lower viscosity inks, as well as ink/tip combinations that allow for a variety of writing experiences. Also, some of the new pen-stylus combinations are really cool. One of our new top sellers is the T.Macy triple function pen with a flashlight and a microfiber mesh stylus."

Tech Effect

Is the expansion of mobile phones, laptops and tablets negatively impacting sales of writing instruments? Not according to the suppliers we spoke to. In fact, they say while people may be physically writing less, the spread of technology is actually increasing the functions that can be provided along with writing instruments.

"With the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and now phablets, one might think pens are on the decline," says Harris Cohen, president and CEO of ALL-IN-ONE (asi/34256). "But in fact, the good old ballpoint pen isn't going anywhere. Disruptive business models find their own path and often merge old technology with the new. We have the good fortune of combining the two technologies together to form new pen-stylus combinations."

And many in the market are pointing to these pen-stylus combinations (as well as other multi-function creations) as the innovation that will drive sales within the category moving forward. "Combinations of diverse writing instruments, like the pen-highlighter combo and the pen-stylus combo, have been on the rise," Cohen says. "The growing trend is to create multi-purpose pens by adding LED lights, USBs and now styluses. Naturally, the course of breeding a new species of pen is on the developer's mind. Many are merging a pen with a clock, a USB drive, a highlighter or a super-bright LED flashlight. Soon, we might see pens with microchips that read your pulse and display it on a small OLED screen in the barrel."

Others believe that technology has only increased the need for pens and other writing instruments in the market today. "We're seeing increased demand for stylus pens that feature a pen retracting through the stylus," says Jeff Lederer, president of Top 40 supplier Prime Line (asi/79530). "Combining the stylus and pen on one side allows for even more functionality, as the opposite end can be used for a battery-powered light or highlighter."

Another member of the expert writing instruments panel says that the spread of technology has had an inherently positive impact on overall sales of the category. The reason? It's an effective marketing tool. "It has definitely  been a positive," says Chris Flynn, national sales manager for Fields Manufacturing (asi/54100), who pointed to colleges and universities as well as insurance companies as the biggest buyers of promotional writing instruments today. "I feel that technology is breathing new life back into the writing instrument as a marketing tool. As the technological items that we use in our everyday lives continue to evolve, the complimentary pieces such as multi-purpose pens will continue to evolve as well."

As the use of technology continues to expand among all consumer demographics, some suppliers believe writing instruments will adapt to include some of those functions. "What we have seen are large increases in sales of stylus pens, obviously because of the growth in technology," says Alan Tabasky, vice president of BEL Promo (asi/39552), who says that any sector that's transaction or sales-related are good prospects for promotional writing instruments. "I think memory storage will be popular, but will be thinner and lighter than basic USB pens. As cellphones evolve into personal computers and data storage devices, I can see writing pens following as well, featuring styluses, data storage and information scanners."

Safety Concerns

While sales of writing instruments continue to grow, and suppliers say that the outlook for the category is bright, they're still focused on ensuring that nothing gets in the way of that growth. Ultimately, that means ensuring that the products distributors sell and end up in the hands of consumers are safe – and verified.

"Writing instruments are susceptible to the same risks as other inexpensive, mass-produced products," says Lederer. "While high-quality manufacturers subject their products to performance, use and abuse testing, there is no shortage of factories that crank out products – pens included – with no testing at all. Unfortunately, this is legal as long as the product is classified as general use. Buyers should exercise due diligence with pens as with any other consumer product to purchase from trustworthy sources that design their products responsibly and then subject them to rigorous testing."

Lederer points to a recent writing instrument consumer recall that should raise warning signs for both distributors and suppliers. "A search of the Consumer Product Safety Commission recall database reveals an incident of gel pens recalled for a spring-loaded cap that could shoot off with great force and pose a risk of eye and facial injuries, and another case of a magnetic pen tip recalled because it was a choking hazard," he says. "There is also a potential risk of ink toxicity."

Indeed, suppliers say, ink is the main area that manufacturers and distributors need to be careful about when it comes to ensuring the safety of writing instruments. "All writing instrument inks in the U.S. must conform to non-toxic standards," Cohen says. "Whether we create new ink formulas or continue to use old standards, they're required to pass established safety criteria. Nonetheless, ink formulas are progressing by altering the viscosity of ink. Lower ink viscosity permits the ballpoint to glide across paper, delivering a smooth continuous flow and effortless motion. We offer this formulation in our Easy-Glide collection."

Fleming also points to ink, as well as lead, as areas that distributors must be knowledgeable about if they're going to safely and effectively sell all the products in the writing instruments category.

"The biggest safety issue is the ink used for the imprint," Fleming says. "It used to be very common to use lead-based inks, because it made the imprint more durable. Lead safety has only recently gotten the attention it deserves. It's still very common in China to find imprint inks containing lead, which makes imprinting over there a challenge. Everyone has heard the 'golden sample' stories, where factories send imprinted items with proper inks as pre-production samples to get tested, only to use lead-based inks on actual orders."

What's Trending?

So, what's most popular in the writing instruments category? And, what do suppliers predict will take the market by storm in the coming years? Certainly, pens with technology functions added onto them are the main winners.

"Stylus pens are currently the biggest trend in writing instruments," notes BIC's High, who says classic ballpoint pens are still the top sellers today. "We're also seeing an increased demand for upgraded writing ink technologies, as well as full-color imprints. The multi-function trend will definitely expand into the future. We predict that new functions will continue to be related to technology, such as stylus pens with screen-cleaning cloths and pads."

Others point to varying aspects of writing instrument construction that are appealing to end-users right now – and are expected to expand in the future. "One of the biggest breakthroughs is the ability to change the barrel finishes on stylus-pens," says Polyconcept's Smartt. "Initially, they had a metallic finish to allow for conductivity of the stylus function. Now, our manufacturers can develop any finish or color imaginable."

Smartt also expects the multifunction aspect of writing instruments to continue to expand. "People react well to items that have built-in lights, screen cleaners and stylus functions," she says. "Designs will evolve to include storage for liquid cleaner and tech-based functions. There will be an increased emphasis on large imprint areas and tech-related decorating capabilities, like QR codes and scanning applications, will become popular."

Ultimately, the multifunction products are increasingly what is in-demand from distributors and their clients. "The most popular items are those that serve multiple functions, including ones featuring a light, a highlighter, a stylus, etc.," says Flynn. "For us, the most popular items right now are 3-in-1 pieces, like a stylus with highlighter and pen."

Others say the next big thing in writing instruments will be advances in inks and gels that will drive future sales. "The tried-and-true ballpoint is the favorite right now, but as the North American market becomes more comfortable with lower viscosity inks, we expect to see a more broad-based appeal for gels," Fleming says. "There is at least one major writing instrument company putting a lot of advertising dollars into ads featuring low viscosity/gel-type ink with a broader range of color. There have been huge leaps forward in ink chemistry recently. New additives that increase the liquid's surface tension have allowed us to provide lower viscosity and higher ink laydown. The traditional tradeoff had been blobbing or smearing, because the ink would sit on the paper for a short time until it got absorbed. With the newest technology, it's absorbed almost instantly."