From starting out with just one stationery store in Bengaluru way back in 2002, to currently owning over 30 stores across India, William Penn, retailer of high end writing instruments has charted an impressive upward climb. After it acquired global premium leather bags brand Lapis Bard in 2016, the company has intensified its focus on business accessories; this seems to be paying off for William Penn. Their stores house products from top brands such as Montblanc, Caran D’ache, Parker, Sheaffer, Faber Castell Design, and Moleskine. The price of pens on the company’s website range from Rs 350 to more than Rs 15 lakh.
On Wednesday, William Penn launched a new range of leather bags under the Lapis Bard brand, with prices ranging from around Rs 12,000 to Rs 26,000.
Speaking to Fortune India, Nikhil Ranjan, founder and MD of the company, said he is on course to cross Rs 100 crore in sales in FY19 and is hoping to double that in the next three to five years. Edited excerpts:
How has William Penn’s growth story shaped up so far?
We started in 2002 as a stationery store in Koramangla, Bengaluru. Soon we realised that there was a lot of interest for premium writing instruments among customers. So we morphed into a format wherein we sold premium, branded writing instruments. Over the next 13-14 years we expanded our store footprint; today we have over 30 stores across the country. A couple of years ago, we started seeing increasing interest in business accessories, so we underwent a change in the positioning of our company and included a wide range of business accessories such as cufflinks, belts, wallets, card holders, bags, etc. We continue to focus on our core business which is writing instruments, but for the last two years, we have been actively increasing our portfolio when it comes to accessories. Currently, writing instruments contributes over 75% to our revenue while the rest comes from accessories. But we believe in three to five years that will become balanced at 50% each.
You acquired the brand Lapis Bard in 2016; you were distributors for it since 2013. What motivated that decision?
We acquired the brand two years ago and that’s when we realised the potential of the premium leather bags segment. We have now launched a new line of larger leather bags under Lapis Bard called Ducorium. It even includes a high-end leather backpack for the younger professionals. The reason we decided to acquire it is that we think there could be a disadvantage of being a partner of distributor. The Indian consumer is not necessarily at the core for international brands that sell through partners or distributors here. The Indian customer could have different design sensibilities and want products at lower prices than an international luxury brand.
We saw this gap as an opportunity. So we acquired the brand in order to have free rein to offer products specifically to Indian consumers. We source our leather largely from Europe and other components from top plants across the globe. But the products are designed by the in-house team and assembled in India.
What are your targets in terms of growth over the next few years?
We’ve been growing between 10-15% consistently each year. In the last couple of years, we were impacted by demonetisation and GST (good and services tax). But this year we are poised to grow upwards of 15% year on year. We are due to cross sales of over Rs 100 crore in the current financial year. In the next three to five years, we are hoping to double that figure, crossing the Rs 200 crore milestone.
Affordable luxury is a space that has been heating up. How are your products placed with respect to this category?
We are placed exactly in the affordable luxury space. When a person wants to upgrade to premium products in categories such as writing instruments or business accessories, that’s where we come in.
We call it the ‘bridge-to-luxury’ category, where the overall price range is around Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000. We are focusing on this segment. A large portfolio of these products will be available exclusively on our website and stores and not other e-commerce sites such as Amazon and Flipkart.
We’ve also been adding big international brands to our portfolio, for example products from Hugo Boss. Soon we will also be launching the writing instruments from Italian design firm Pininfarina with prices ranging from Rs 3,500 to Rs 10,000. We see a big opportunity is this space and will continue to focus on it going forward.
With smartphone penetration rapidly increasing and dependence on technology rising, do you think writing instruments will continue to stay relevant?
We believe in the power of the written word. For example, letters can be far more powerful than a text message or email. You can re-read a letter multiple times. We recently held this campaign called ‘Write a letter, say it better’ wherein we asked customers walking into our stores to pen a letter to anyone they wanted. Then we mailed it for them. The campaign was a huge success. Some people reached out to us to let us know that some of their letters actually mended estranged relationships; some said it provided an opportunity to their children to write their first ever letter.
I call it ‘digital detox’; there is so much dependence on gadgets now that there’s a fatigue setting in. And going back to pen and paper serves as a detox of sorts.