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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
seems like its 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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.