Can the TWSBI Eco outsell the Lamy Safari?

peneconomics.com was the recent pen blog of the week over at The Pen Addict podcast, and I must say, it is a great read.

Dr. Jonathon Deans is publishing great posts, full of interesting views and opinions on the industry side of the pen hobby. What a great change from the typical review fare. It has become a staple in my RSS reader and I look forward to every new post.

Back in February, Jonathan published a 2-part analysis of TWSBI and their position in the fountain pen market (part 1 and 2). In these posts Jonathan clearly identifies TWSBI’s strengths and the basis for their rapid success with the pen community.

He especially seems to be excited about the upcoming TWSBI Eco and he has some very optimistic ideas how well it could do, especially compared to other entry level pens like the Pilot Metropolitan and the Lamy Safari.

In his most positive projections, he even goes as far as this:

In the first week, the Eco will massively outsell any of Lamy’s products, that’s to be expected.

Now, I am not an economist. I am a scientifically minded skeptic though, and this seems so unlikely to me that I am tempted to call it impossible.

Again, I know that Jonathon is only saying that this could happen, not that it will. My perspective on Lamy and the position they hold in their home market makes me doubt this very much though, and I would like to spend some time to point out why.

“What’s a Twizbee?”

“What’s a Twizbee?” That’s the question that you’ll hear outside of the pen community when you talk about the little pen manufacturer from Taiwan.

TWSBI is great. I am a fan. But we have to consider a few things that are often forgotten if we only consider our little Internet echo chamber:

  • TWSBI are very successful online. But they have little presence in brick and mortar stores. And that is where most of the people that need pens but don’t obsess over them buy pens.
  • As far as I can tell, TWSBI does not have a strong regional market. There is no region where people assume TWSBI pens to be one of the defaults to buy.
  • TWSBI does not market their products aggressively, relying on word of mouth and social media to promote their products
  • TWSBI has a bad case of Vaporware. We are all waiting for the Eco. And have been for some time. The same is true for the Vac Mini. And has been true for the Classic.
  • TWSBI is known for low build quality. I think thats not justified, but I can’t argue the fact.
  • TWSBI is specializing in offering an exotic filling system that is popular with the enthusiasts at a low price. The market however has moved to more convenient and clean cartridge/converter pens.

Jokes about Lamy

Lamy is a household name in their home market. When I went to school, we used to joke that they sell pens to kids of rich hippy parents that visit Waldorf schools exclusively. Now, none of that is true, but you get where I’m coming from. They have a reputation, and enjoy awareness in the general public.

  • Lamy pens can be found at any place that sells school supplies in the German speaking market. Every pen store, every department store, and some supermarkets even. And the most prominent product there is what I call the Lamy Strategic Nib Deployment System (Safari/Vista/AL-Star).
  • They are the premium but most prominent choice in a major market, since penmanship is still a topic in German schools. Jonathon has talked about brands that I would call “defaults”, he mentions Cross and Parker. Brands that are being bought by people that don’t know what to buy, but they rely on a solid reputation. That’s Lamy in Germany
  • Lamy does promote their product, although selectively.
  • Lamy has a history of delivering new products to the market regularly and on time. (See their predictable and mostly unremarkable special edition Safaris and AL-Stars)
  • Over here, Lamys are cheap! Almost Pilot Metropolitan cheap. Cheaper, actually, if you consider that Metropolitans are not on the German market and supplies (cartridges, spare parts, nibs) for the Lamys are abundant.
  • Lamy’s entry offerings are known for their great build quality.
  • Lamy is relying on a practical and tested cartridge/converter system.

The puzzle wont come together

So let’s look at what Jonathon proposes. TWSBI is going to come out with the Eco.

Eventually.

They are lucky if the hype that they managed to generate has survived the delays.

TWSBI is working hard to make the Eco a quality pen without the material issues that have plagued their previous pens. And I hope they do. I love my TWSBIs, and I can’t wait to get another great pen by them. But so far their track record is not great when it comes to build quality. Let’s assume that the Eco will be rock solid though.

The Lamy Safari and related pens are very popular across all customers, but they are intended for school children. In a classroom setting, would you rather have the students change a cartridge quickly or fiddle with a bottled ink and a piston filling pen? Teachers and parents have long answered this question.

And how is the parent in the store supposed to know about these great and exotic pens from Taiwan that are all the rage online? To rival the Safari, TWSBI would have to mount a major marketing push that I honestly think is outside of their financial reach.

So let’s assume the best outcome. That TWSBI manages to get equal visibility and shelf space in brick and mortar stores as Lamy, in Lamy’s home market, with a pen of equal reliability.

They still sell a product that is fundamentally and obviously flawed for the purpose it is bought for by most customers.

They sell more expensive then Lamy in Lamy’s biggest market.

They are fighting an established and trusted brand in a market that is relying strongly on trust and tradition (leave it to Germans to do things they way they have always been done, just because thats how they have always been done).

I had the pleasure to have a quick chat with Jonathon on Twitter about the topic, and I was very curious if he had any sales numbers on TWSBI or Lamy, to see how close they are and how realistic it would be for TWSBI to close the gap. He doesn’t have any numbers, and neiter do I. My impression of his argument is that it shows a biased perspective, both from an enthusiasts instead of a more general consumer point of view, and also from the perspective of a market where both brands are exotic with comparable prices. The way I see it, Lamy has a strong home market where TWSBI has none, and they are able to sell with price advantage, too!

So let’s look at the suggestion again:

In the first week, the Eco will massively outsell any of Lamy’s products, that’s to be expected.

“Massively.” “Any of Lamy’s products.”

I admit that my perspective is probably just as skewed as Jonathon’s, and neither of us has hard data on sales to make better predictions. But how can you claim that one will massively outsell the other when you don’t have any sales numbers for either? Considering the major disatvantages that TWSBI would have to overcome?

Is his idea interesting? Sure.

Is it likely in a way that we colloquially associate with the term “possible”?

I don’t think so.

Thanks for reading.

14 thoughts on “Can the TWSBI Eco outsell the Lamy Safari?”

  1. My only thoughts on this are that the Lamy’s I have purchased (about 8 pens or so in the last year) have had a wildly inconsistent nib quality. I got lucky with my 2000, but with my Safaris and Al-Star nibs, the quality has been frighteningly varied from some of the best nibs I have to the worst. Not to mention that (at least in the USA) they are not dirt cheap and do not come with a converter.

    If TWSBI can hammer out the quality control issues with the Eco and deliver a consistent quality piston filler pen for $30, then they should overtake the Lamy Safari. I mean not having the triangular grip (which I love) will win over a number of people.

  2. Thank you for a very good article. I completely agree with you. TWSBI are often poorly-built and expensive (when compared to the Safari, Al-Star or the Pilot Metropolitan) and the fact that they are all piston pens does not make them suited to the mass-market user. They seem to be aimed at “otaku” fountain pen users, who like to tinker with pens and obsess about filing systems. Most ordinary people want to walk into a physical store and buy a pen that is well built and easy to use, that comes in different nib sizes and a whole host of different colours – such as the Safari.

  3. Great — and very interesting! — article you provide here, based on another great article.

    Based on my experience as a (pen addict) Berlin/German mother of two school children (6 and 8 yo.) I would not fear that Twsbi or any other brand except for Pelikan is a real threat or competitor on the German market in terms of sales. Just from what I see at my childrens’ school, memories from my time at school, my university years, office and school supply stores, chain stationary stores around here etc.: Lamy is everywhere. Lamy and Pelikan (and, sadly, Online), sometimes Faber-Castell’s beginner fountain pens, are the staples in the German market. If you want to go veeery cheap you can buy cheapo 1€ Parker or Schneider fountain pens, but these I do not encounter too often.

    I do not only volunteer regularly at my childrens’ school (grades 1-6 = ages 5/6-12/13) but also teach refugees as a volunteer, so I got to see many many many writing instruments in the last two years. I did not do valid statistics, but if the person (child/student/refugee) I am with has a fountain pen it is either one of those very cheap ones (refugees), or it is Lamy (mostly the wooden beginner models, older children tend to have a Safari) for about 50%, a Pelikan fountain pen (30%, beginner models like the Pelikano), Faber-Castell (maybe ca. 10%). Some teachers want their pupils to start with a (gel) rollerball pen like the Stabilo Smove (or the equvalent Herlitz My Pen), then whole classes will buy those in a bulk.

    As you mentioned, maybe from far away and based on our narrowed view of the Peniverse things might get distorted, but seeing the “real world”, even if my base that I described above only included 800 school children and maybe 200 refugees in the last 2 years, Lamy & Co are staples here.

    No one around here knows TWSBi! I do some shopping and looking around in Berlin and only know of one shop who sells them. So much for them to take over … I highly doubt this will happen any time soon.

    1. Hey Julie,

      thanks for the comment, very interesting to get this fairly large sample size. A recent post on peneconomics that portraits Lamy as being threatened by new competitors like TWSBI has sparked new interest in the topic. Unfortunately Dr. Dean has made more statements that he doesn’t provide any sources for. It’s all rather strange, really.

      Thank you for your effort volunteering at schools and for refugees, a topic that is close to my heart!

      1. “Thank you for your effort volunteering at schools and for refugees, a topic that is close to my heart!” — It’s just my tiny attempt to give something back to the awesome education I received for free! 😉

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