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Dry flow: PH pen and ink market in the pandemic

When journalist Ceej Tantengco bought a pre-owned fountain pen from a friend a few months ago, she got easily “transfixed” with the hobby.

“I’ve got several friends who are really into fountain pens, but I didn’t really start until this year,” she said told Pen Noob

From a Pilot Kakuno and a couple of ink samples, she added a TWSBI Eco and Kaweco Sport and a handful of blue inks to her collection. She was also given an old Sheaffer Targa by a relative.

“I felt so cooped up at home and the days were all blurring together so I was decided to start journaling — and with it, using fountain pens,” added Tantengco, saying that the hobby has helped her mental health during the ongoing pandemic.

Worldwide, journaling has become one of the go-to hobbies amidst the pandemic, a trend that also hit the local market.

Read: 2021 PH fountain pen roundup

Office worker Bunny (not her real name), got started with the hobby during the pandemic’s first year out of necessity: a repetitive strain injury on her writing arm. Being stuck at home also pushed her to give fountain pens a try, which turned out to be not as maintenance-heavy as she thought.

“(The hobby) gave me an outlet. Rather than have my brain run around in circles in negativity, it became busy with things like learning how to tune a pen, what specifications work for my grip, what should I look for in inks,” she told Pen Noob.

Graduate student and long-time collector Joaquin Toledo also found a sense of normalcy in buying fountain pens during Covid-19’s early months in the Philippines, saying that it helped him deal with anxiety and uncertainty.

“When the world is going gray, maybe it isn’t such a bad idea that some of us who have the passion, the inclination to the arts, and the will, put a little bit of color in it,” he shared to Pen Noob for an earlier story.

Read: Pen-demic collecting

Tantengco, Toledo, and Bunny are just one of the many fountain pen collectors, newbies and old ones alike, whose hobby-related consumption helped Philippine fountain pen and ink sellers stay afloat amid the ongoing health crisis.

Dry Philippine fountain pen market flow

Philippine fountain pen market
While the latter part of 2020 saw some easing in movement restrictions, people only gained the confidence to go out after Covid-19 vaccines were rolled out in late 2021.

“We did see the immense support from our loyal customers who still ordered from us and supported our business during the pandemic,” said Marian Ong, owner of  Scribe.  “This really helped us through the worst part of the year.”

The 12-year-old stationery shop saw its monthly physical store sales drop by as much as 60% in 2020,  a “scary” situation since the chain relied heavily on its brick and mortar stores. Its retail partners, however, offered rental concessions during this time.

“The ‘malling’ culture has always been part of the Filipino culture, with friends and families frequenting the malls for a meal together or just enjoy the mall. All this changed when the lockdown started and the worse-hit industries are those that were in the malls and this includes us, ” said Ong.

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Jillian Tan, owner of Everything Calligraphy (EC), likewise pointed to mobility issues and a drop in walk-in customers as one of their main problems last year.

“Enhanced community quarantine also meant that our staff could not get to work so there are added expenses on special transportation for staff members. Fountain Pen Day which is also a major sales day for us was also canceled so that was also a significant setback,” she told Pen Noob.

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Cebu City-based fountain pen ink brand Troublemaker Inks (Troublemaker) also hit a wall during the pandemic. Their city even topped the national tally for Covid-19 cases at one point.

“After March, we made absolutely zero sales from customers and retailers for a time. Without checking the numbers, I’d say for three months,” said Gabriel Arnado, co-founder of Troublemaker. “Thankfully, we didn’t have to dig into our personal funds.”

Read: These ‘troublemakers’ want to ink your fountain pens with no trouble

Digital, business model pivots

Scribe, EC, and Troublemaker all had to make adjustments to keep their businesses alive in 2020. The two stationery shops for example tapped their respective websites as they also explored other e-commerce platforms to expand their reach. Business then started picking up for both when the -ber months started. Fountain Pen Network-Philippines also organized an online event in place of the usual in-person pen meet.

“Generally all products moved well especially Vinta Inks,” said EC’s Tan. “Consumers are also more price-sensitive so we must focus on giving them good value for money”

Read: Vinta Inks set sail for PH fountain pens

By the end of 2020, Scribe’s business was 60% online and 40% retail, but its sales figures have dropped by 30% compared to its pre-pandemic performance. EC declined to disclose its numbers.

“(Online transactions) cannot cover the dip in sales from the physical stores, but it was enough to keep the business afloat,” said Scribe’s Ong. “It is challenging for us to compete in the online market as there are many online store customers that can even order from overseas with ease.”

She added that brick-and-mortar stores have always been their focus, “mainly because we see shopping as an experience.” But even that type of service had to wait at the lockdown’s height.

“We wanted our customers to touch and feel the products as well interact with our staff. This has always been our direction, but we had to evolve with the trend and it seems that having our website just in time was a very good move,” shared Ong.

Fountain pen collector Alex (not their real name), stressed the importance of being able to check pens up close, one that can’t be done as casually as before the pandemic hit.

“For bigger-ticket items, either a brick and mortar store or a trusted seller who will allow you to ‘try’ first the pen is preferable,” they said, stressing that preferences highly vary per user, and a single pen can be experienced differently.

 

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Troublemaker, on the other hand, made a direct-to-consumer to business-to-business shift, which was “just COVID changing the retail landscape, I’d say,” shared Arnado. This brought their costs down while addressing the issue of ink availability, as they also supply inks to overseas sellers.

“We understand that pre-pandemic, the absurdly short buy windows were a pain to time and might have left a sour taste in some of our prospective customers, so I hope that this new way will alleviate some of that,” he added. “Even still, our inks are relatively hard to acquire due to our small size.”

Together with Scribe and Jim Weaver, the ink brand also launched two limited colors with matching face masks in the past year. It made some re-releases through Scribe too during the pandemic. Troublemaker, however, also saw a 30% drop in sales for 2020.

Looking at neighbors

We were lucky enough to remain relevant during the pandemic. People had time on their hands and many took on the hobby of journaling and writing. I think this really helped us stay afloat during the pandemic. We did not have many new products, but it helped that we just restocked before the lockdown started. – Marian Ong, owner, Scribe

While the Philippines is not directly covered by existing market size forecasts, one can refer to observations on other Asian countries for insights, especially in the context of the pandemic.

Euromonitor International said that the market for “luxury writing instruments and stationery” in Japan contracted in 2020 due to the lack of tourism and gift-giving occasions. This is the same for India, where fountain pens were the go-to choices for corporate and milestone gift giving.

There was noted resilience in markets despite the drops, however, like in Taiwan and South Korea. In the United Arab Emirates, luxury brand Montblanc for example managed to stay afloat.

“While Montblanc saw decreased current value sales growth in 2020, mostly due to the loss of tourists, its losses were tempered by the fact that local consumption increased to a certain degree. Customers, especially local Emiratis, are embracing the fountain pen amid a rediscovery of penmanship,” said the report.

Newbies and the Philippine fountain pen and ink market

In-person events used to be the best way to learn about fountain pens while buying some at the same time. Everything has since moved online.

Philippine fountain pen market players similarly noticed an increase in interest among prospective buyers, driven by willingness to disconnect from anything digital.

“We did feel a surge in newbies based on the inquiries we have been receiving so we felt the need to start offering entry-level fountain pens for those who just wanted to start taking on the hobby,” said Ong, “This was really good because it was something that we have been wanting to tap for some time now.”

Troublemaker also saw some of its colors immediately get sold out on Scribe’s launch dates, which the brand sees as a good sign.

“It’s great that we’re seeing new enthusiasts in the space,” said Arnado. The local ink makers saw their sales numbers jump by 120% in 2021 compared to 2020. This is 53% more than its 2019 performance.

Philippine fountain pen market
Troublemaker’s Manila Pen Show debut back in 2018.

EC, on the other hand, said that its numbers have increased a bit compared to pre-pandemic. Tan credits this to their “shift to offer our products on more platforms.”

“Hopefully, with less restrictions, we can expect more walk-in customers to be able to increase our sales,” she added.

Scribe, on the other hand, said that it has yet to beat its 2019 figures, with its 2021 growth seen to increase by just 5% compared to 2020.

“We feel that it will take a while for us to reach pre-pandemic sales performance again,” said Ong. “While the threat of the pandemic is still around, I think the people’s priorities are shifting and people may have lesser disposable income to splurge on hobbies given the uncertainties.”

The challenge then, for Scribe, is to capture “new and young users” while maintaining its existing ties with long-time customers by extending its usual offline selling style to the virtual space.

“We also want to change the people’s perception that fountain pens are expensive and that starting this hobby is not for everyone. We are now offering more affordable priced brands and pens so people can enjoy the hobby,” added Ong.

 

Post-pandemic recovery

Every day I have a reason to unplug and focus on choosing a pen, picking an ink, and just writing for myself. It gives me space to reflect and process my emotions, and I also feel more connected to other people because of the amazing fountain pen community and culture – Ceej Tantengco

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But with a newbie-friendly local community, the Philippine fountain pen and ink market should remain afloat. These shops, after all, have always been the go-to spots for local penthusiasts.

Read: Where to buy fountain pens online

“Trading inks with friends is so much fun, and meeting fellow FP lovers (even if only online) has been really nice as well,” said Tantengco.  “As a newbie, I love how everyone is really generous with their knowledge and expertise.”

For Bunny, the hobby paved for a fun way to interact with fellow fountain pen users, adding that “it also introduced me to people I otherwise would never have met, people outside of my usual work and school circles.”

The “welcoming” community also made it easy for writer Michi (surname withheld), to continue with the hobby after starting right before the pandemic.

“I didn’t think the experience would be as welcoming, at least on the Philippine, as it is,” she said, noting that she has experienced hobby-related difficulty such as getting products shipped “since I am a minority, Muslim from Mindanao.”

While the local fountain pen group remains active online, Philippine fountain pen and ink market players still look forward to having the usual face-to-face events take place anew.

“We’ve laid low since 2020 (because of something called Covid), so hopefully, when pen shows are back in the calendar, we can jump into the social aspects of the hobby again,” said Arnado.

Scribe’s Ong also hopes that the market won’t write off retailers anytime soon, despite having more competitors in the online selling space.

“It really makes us very happy when we receive messages from our satisfied customers and it gives our sales team much pride as well.”

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