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Deconstructing the Major Pen Manufacturers

from the fountain pen of John Morgan

While much of the discussion on Pentrace centers on getting opinions about particular models of pens as well as thinking about the future of fountain pens in general, it seems that a neglected but interesting topic is seeing how pen manufacturers compete with one another and looking for how a company's culture and identity shape its competitive decisions. One lens through which to view each manufacturer's strategy is through its spread in the Fountain Pen Hospital catalog. That is, we will try to "deconstruct" the trends, directions, and strategy of each manufacturer through their representation in this catalog.

The Fountain Pen Hospital (FPH) catalog is an important and much looked at one among pen buyers and certainly how a particular brand or model comes across here can have a significant impact on its fortunes in the marketplace. Moreover, one gets a sense of the volume of sales and the importance of various models of a given manufacturer by examining both how much page space is given to a manufacturer as well as the slate of items that FPH chose to feature. One caveat in this whole exercise is that very low-end pens tend to be neglected in space given in the catalog. As a consequence, there is some distortion toward higher end pen manufacturers in looking through the Fountain Pen Hospital lens.

Sheaffer

Sheaffer has a two page spread in the FPH catalog features three models (ordered from most to least expensive): Legacy 2, Intrigue, and Prelude. The flagship of Sheaffer's line is that Legacy 2. This model is designed to remind users of one of Sheaffer's most desirable vintage products, the PFM (Pen for Men) series. Interestingly, Sheaffer's ad copy makes no mention of this fact in the catalog instead focusing on the employment of Modus Product Design of Stuttgart in coming up with the black pearl design for the Legacy 2. The only retro appeal in the copy is to note that the inlaid nib of the Legacy 2 is a Sheaffer signature design element.

The black pearls design seems part of a general strategy by Sheaffer to gain product differentiation with daring and unconventional designs and textures for their pens. It is entirely consistent with Sheaffer's newest pen entry, the Intrigue. If one simply looks at the size and shape of the pen and nib, the Intrigue is just a lighter and smaller version of the Legacy 2. But this ignores tons of elements which appear to be geared toward giving the pen a more youthful appeal. First and most obvious are the outrageous patterns of the Intrigue -- a trend which has continued with this year's entry of the seal pattern. The cap design is asymmetric and the filling system is unusual as well. While both of these elements are certainly different from other Sheaffer designs, the conventional wisdom seems to be that that's all they are is different or perhaps a bit worse than more standard designs. Nonetheless, the Intrigue did manage to win Pen World International's new pen of the year award for 2001, so the Intrigue has obviously met with some market success.

The third product entry represents what I would view as the old Sheaffer design philosophy. The Prelude is a venerable design that is somewhat out of fashion what most new pens look like. Up until now, Sheaffer's philosophy seemed to be value and volume driven. Produce simple designs without a lot of changes over time. Having done this, produce tons of these pens and offer them at reasonable prices. This clearly seems to be the strategy behind the Prelude.

Sheaffer seems like it’s a company with an image in transition. The price point for the Legacy 2 at only $275 is one of the cheapest "flagship" pens offered by any of the major pen manufacturers. This is true to the value position that seems to have been Sheaffer's strategy in the recent past. At the same time, Sheaffer is trying to change buyers perceptions of its company to one with design style and flair. It seems that part of the way this is to be achieved is to regularly introduce new and trendy style variations on its existing lines as evidenced by the new patterns offered for the Legacy 2 and Intrigue. Ultimately, this strategy, if successful, should lead to the possibility of higher markups and more of a public perception of Sheaffer as a style rather than a value leader. Will this work? It seems a difficult strategy to implement against stiff competition from Italian pen manufacturers and limited edition pen manufacturers whose product depends a lot more of a sense of forward design than does Sheaffer. On the other hand, perhaps Sheaffer's niche can be style with high quality. To do that though, it will need to improve on both the style and the quality fronts.

Parker

Parker also has a two page spread with four models highlighted: Duofold, Ellipse, Sonnet, and Inflection. At the high end, the Duofold now features only three designs: pearl and black, black, and black with platinum highlights. Compared to Sheaffer, this is a much more conservative lineup design wise. The Duofold is offered in two sizes -- big (Centennial) and small (International). Given how much heterogeneity there is in people's preferences for the size of a fountain pen, it seems surprising that this strategy is not embraced more often. The flagship pens probably offer the greatest profit margin to a pen manufacturer. Why not leverage the advertising budget and word of mouth by offering an assortment of sizes? This is a striking difference between the Sheaffer and the Parker strategy. Sheaffer offers two pens that are fat and somewhat heavy leaving fans of smaller and thinner pens only the Prelude as an option. In contrast, Parker offers more size variation in the Duofold and Sonnet than does Sheaffer's entire line. The Duofold commands a much higher retail price ($430 retail for the Centennial Pearl and Black) than does Sheaffer. Still, the catalog does not feature the Mosaic, Parker's latest design variation in the Duofold line. Is this because it appeared too late for inclusion? If so, it would seem to represent a bad mistake on the part of Parker.

Next down the line is a new entry -- the Parker Ellipse. This model was introduced in 2001, but has received little notice on pen message boards. About the only thing that was mentioned was the similarity between this pen and the Waterman Carene and whether this similarity was in fact a cost-cutting measure by Parker and Waterman's shared corporate parent. Design-wise, the Ellipse shares the lacquer over brass styling of the Sonnet although some of the other design touches especially the cap jewel are different. The lack of talk about this pen must be distressing to the folks at Parker, but in retrospect, this should not be too surprising in view of the fairly incremental changes in the design of this pen compared to what is already out there.

Next in line is the Parker Sonnet. This pen actually occupies several price points. The sterling silver versions of the pen, which may be viewed as direct descendants of the Parker 75, go for as high as $310 retail. On the other hand, the simple black lacque model runs only $140 retail. Design wise, the Sonnet has some passing resemblance to the Parker 75, but cannot really be called a retro design. While Sonnets have their critics (mostly to do with problems with ink drying out from air entering the cap), there are an exceptional number of folks who absolutely adore this pen. The key, I think, was Parker's decision to manufacture an unusual nib for this pen. Whereas most modern nibs are quite firm, the Sonnet was designed to be more flexible than usual (or mushy if you're not a fan). Somehow, this quality distinguishes the pen from many of its modern brethren and gives it a unique niche in the marketplace.

Finally, the Inflection is Parker's attempt at an entry level pen. This too is a relatively new entry, first appearing in 2000. It has not stirred up much interest at all except possibly negative interest from complaints about the clip. The nib design is semi-hooded echoing the design of the Ellipse. Style wise, there is not much new here at all.

The failure of Parker's two most recent entries to capture the imagination of the marketplace must be disheartening. Their strategy appears to be to retain the conservative image and styling of their pens (mostly though the use of rich lacquer over brass designs) and hope to maintain market share. While the Duofold and the Sonnet continue to chug along successfully, the rest of the line seems lifeless. Parker currently has higher price points than does Sheaffer, but to retain the ability to charge a price premium, Parker is going to have to be more successful with variations on existing designs or new designs than it has been of late.

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