Suneera Tandon, MINT (A Wall Street Journal Partner)
New Delhi , 9 July 2012
For Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd publisher Chiki Sarkar, nothing is quite as beautiful as paper. Her current favourite is Pineider, the 200-year-old Italian fine stationery brand that she picked from Rome.
Sarkar is in good company in the world of letters. Pineider’s website informs visitors that it was the stationer of choice for writers from Lord Byron and Percy B. Shelley to Giacomo Leopardi and Charles Dickens, and that Napoleon Bonaparte was among the travellers who entered the Pineider shop.
The Mediterranean blue and baby pink boxes of Pineider “have the most beautiful envelopes with different inlay paper”, Sarkar says. She uses the paper for writing small notes by hand—“Thank yous and condolences.”
“I can’t do complex writing by hand,” Sarkar explains. “I have a terrible handwriting and I fool myself that it looks better when I use a fountain pen.”
Sarkar is among a growing tribe of connoisseurs of luxury stationery — which they are buying on trips abroad as well as from an increasing number of retailers stocking such products in India — for their personal use.
Although luxury paper and fine writing instruments are still
a minuscule part of the Rs. 10,000-12,000 crore Indian stationery
market, they are part of a segment that’s growing at a yearly
pace of 20-25%, say industry experts.
Aakriti Mandhwani, a 26-year-old M. Phil student at Delhi University, treasures her Moleskine diaries, which the company’s website says were used by artists and authors including Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and Bruce Chatwin to write their memoirs and stories and draw their sketches. “If I were to record my life, I would write it down in a Moleskine diary,” Mandhwani said.
Moleskine products, which enjoy a cult following, include notebooks, which typically come with an elastic band to hold them closed, as well as diaries, planners, bags and writing instruments. They are based on notebooks that were first produced and marketed by French bookbinders in the 19th and 20th centuries and which were used by Van Gogh, Picasso, even Chatwin; Moleskine itself was launched in the late 1990s by an eponymous Italian company that read a description of the notebooks in a book by Chatwin.
Mandhwani’s first Moleskine in red paper was a gift from a friend in London. “There is an aura around Moleskine. Only those with an aesthetic sense can appreciate it for what it is,” says Mandhwani. In India, Moleskine products are distributed by William Penn, the retail chain that stocks luxury pens.
Delhi-based retail consultant Devangshu Dutta, chief executive at Third Eyesight, attributes the growing popularity of luxury stationery among well-heeled Indians to changing aspirations.
“People want to appear more professional,” Dutta said. “As they move up the socio-economic ladder, the consumption of stationery, which is a utility product, is becoming more expensive. It’s more about the brand and being conscious about what you are seen with.”
Shailesh Karwa, co-chief executive officer of Staples Future Office Products Pvt. Ltd, says there has been an influx of brands in the luxury category and the premium is growing faster than the mid-to-low-priced brands.
“Pens have been seeing a growing demand in the market”, he adds.
No surprise then that the high-end retail chain William Penn, which sells writing instruments such as Sheaffer, Pelikan and Caran d’Ache, has been growing at 20-25% over the last five years.
Started in 2002 by Nikhil Ranjan, who quit his tech job at International Business Machines Corp., the company has seen the market evolve.
“The personal gifting and consumption of pens has gone up dramatically, driven by growth in spending power” says Ranjan, who uses a Sailor 1911 fountain pen to sign his cheques. Currently, the company has 15 stores in six cities and five shop-in-shops and stocks products that range in price from Rs. 750 to Rs. 1 crore and more. The La Modernista from Caran d’Ache is what costs a cool Rs. 1 crore. The Shri Ganesh from Sailor is more affordable; it costs Rs. 4.5 lakh.
Over the years, the chain has seen both its sales by volume and average ticket size go up. Sales volumes are driven by writing instruments priced between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 5,000. Gifts account for almost 50% of sales.
Every now and then Ranjan gets requests for customized products. Recently, he was asked to inscribe a family name on the nib of a Caran d’Ache, a Swiss brand, as well as on the box to be passed on to future generations. Such services are provided at a 100% to 500% premium, says Ranjan.
He plans to expand the product line, enthused by the growing market for premium stationery. He has introduced Rubinato quill pens from Italy and a range of stationery and accessories from Dalvey. The growing league of individuals who relish the idea of well-crafted stationery is pulling more cult brands into the market.
Retail experts say that the pen market, estimated at Rs. 3,000 crore a year, is seeing a lot of traction.
“As the country moves towards higher levels of literacy, we are seeing demand for stationery products go up. Also as the economy matures, per capita expenditure on such categories will continue to go up,” says Sushil Patra, associate director of retail at consultancy Technopak Advisors Pvt. Ltd.
The desire to use expensive stationery is on the upswing despite the advent of tablets and hand-held devices changing the way people communicate. For instance, Suresh Mohankar, national planning head at Dentsu Communications Pvt. Ltd in Bangalore, is a self-professed stationery addict who prefers putting to paper his work-related ideas instead of typing them out on his laptop. “I’ve always been used to writing, so I still use diaries or journals to make points for my ppts (PowerPoint presentations) and proposals.”
Mohankar’s personal collection comprises 50 fountain pens with Montblanc, Conway Stewart and Sheaffer among them. “I never use office stationery, I get my own. It’s the feel-good factor of writing on good paper with a good pen,” says Mohankar, who picks up stationery from outlets at airports and from retail chains.
Like Chiki Sarkar and Mohankar, Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, an international publishing consultant, also finds good stationery sensually appealing. “It’s addictive,” she says. Her personal collection consists of Moleskine journals, Paperblanks (diaries) collected from her trips to Europe and diaries produced by Roli Books Pvt. Ltd and Penguin Books India.
There are others who swear by Rubberband launched five years ago by Mumbai-based design consultant Ajay Shah. Rubberband imports pulp from Indonesia and Russia to make its notebooks, which sell at 50 outlets in India. Available in bright colours, the notebooks and writing pads cost between Rs. 160 and Rs. 1,500.
Buyers are typically professionals such as architects, graphic and interior designers, photographers and storyboard artistes, Shah says. He also sees growing interest for his brand among lawyers, doctors, executives and those working in the hospitality sector.
(This article was published in Mint on 9 July 2012.)