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Published on: Oct. 4, 2021, 1:08 p.m.
BIC Cello wields the pen in a mighty way!
  • BIC Cello says it sells five million pens in the country every day

By Suman Tarafdar

Is the pen still mighty? India has nearly 300 million students – from school children to the postgraduate level. In terms of population, this alone would make them the fourth largest nation globally! No wonder then that it is a lucrative, even mighty, segment for businesses to get even a slice of.

Among the sectors cashing in is the Rs3,500 crore stationery sector. The stationery market is dominated by ballpoint pens, which form a big chunk of the pie, followed by graphite pencils, colouring pencils, gel pens, markers and highlighters, rollerball pens and fountain pens, according to Manos Nikolakis, Director & General Manager of BIC Cello India.

 “Education and creativity are the two most important elements driving a purchase decision in the stationery segment,” explains Nikolakis. “Almost 70 per cent of the Indian stationery market has unorganised players. However, the entry of international brands, such as BIC Cello and others, have changed the dynamic. Assuming the market comes back to normalcy and the education sector goes back to operating the way it was pre-pandemic, the category is expected to grow at a rate of 5-6 per cent year-on-year. The growth will be fuelled by the influx of four to five million new students in the formal education system every year.

BIC Cello commands a 25 per cent market share in the writing instruments category, which includes pens, markers, and mechanical pencils.” Other major players in the space include domestic players such as Linc, Luxor, Flair, Camlin (bought by Kokuyo), ITC’s Classmate and Hindustan Pencils. International brands that have entered the market include Reynolds and Faber Castell. 

Nikolakis points out that due to Covid, with lockdowns imposed since March 2020, the education sector along with ancillary businesses, like stationery, have seen a decrease in purchasing habits. “The industry witnessed a decline of about 35 per cent in 2020 versus 2019 in traditional trade sales. We saw a similar trend in our core business, writing instruments. However, we saw a boom in e-commerce that was complemented by growing internet penetration in smaller towns and cities across India.” While the company does not reveal sales figures, unconfirmed sources say sales for the brand topped Rs1,000 crore in 2019-20.

In 2020, BIC conducted an in-depth survey across India to understand the impact of the pandemic on parents and their children’s education. “We surveyed more than 400 parents and found that the majority of Indian parents, especially in Delhi, purchased school supplies online,” reveals Nikolakis. “We found that the average spending on school supplies went up from Rs8,000 to more than Rs20,000 – primarily due to investment in electronic items, while a significant dip of Rs5,000 was seen in stationery, arts and crafts, as well as educational toys and games. From a business standpoint, we anticipate recovery in traditional trade in the second half of 2021 and early 2022 with the gradual opening of schools, colleges, and offices. We expect an increase in demand and a positive momentum.” 

Cello to BIC

Founded in 1974 by Ghisulal Rathod, Cello started its journey by manufacturing and marketing a wide range of classic ball pens with imported tips and German inks. Focusing on innovation, high-quality pens and leading-edge technologies, Cello soon became India’s most popular writing instruments brand. In December 2015, the Rathods sold Cello Writing to the French stationery leader BIC for R540 crore, and the company was renamed BIC Cello India. It had a workforce of 10,000 as of 2018.

Over the years, BIC Cello has expanded its product portfolio, offering world-class stationery products such as markers, mechanical pencils, rollerball pens, and fountain pens. India is a nascent market, however. For a stationery enthusiast, just the sheer range of products available globally is an intoxicating experience, a space the Indian stationery space has yet to adequately explore.

Currently 80 per cent of the BIC Cello net sales come from India while 20 per cent is generated through exports to North America, Latin America, Middle East, Africa, and Europe. “We have a robust product portfolio,” says Nikolakis. “Ball pens form the largest category of our portfolio, and as of July 2021 they have contributed to around 75 per cent of our sales. Cello Butterflow, FineGrip, Power, Pinpoint, Gripper, Technotip are our major growth drivers.”

Pandemic pause  

“The pandemic and the resultant lockdown have been difficult for everyone,” says Nikolakis. “More so for parents who have been scrambling for resources to keep their kids engaged in productive activities. Staying at home has given children time to pause, refuel and spend quality time with their parents. They express themselves creatively through offline activities, such as colouring and drawing. An interesting trend we saw during the pandemic was that colouring was not only limited to younger kids, but children across all ages and a segment of adult audiences.”

“The pandemic allowed us at BIC Cello to accelerate the transformation of our product portfolio,” says Nikolakis. We have accelerated the implementation of a robust omni-channel presence, which has always been part of our strategy, and have increased our investments substantially to engage with e-commerce consumers. In 2021-22, we will continue to focus on strengthening our omni-channel marketing and provide consumers with a seamless experience. Our relationship with our distribution partners has strengthened over the last year. We helped them liquidate their inventories and provided support via credit terms during the initial lockdown phase.”

Future plans 

“We sell five million pens in the country every day. While pens priced lower than Rs10 have a larger share in value, it’s important to know that, in volume, premium offerings such as permanent markers, highlighters, and fountain pens, lead the net sales. As of June 2021, general trade has contributed to 80 per cent of our sales. Since last year, we have seen an increase of 7-8 per cent in e-commerce sales,” adds Nikolakis.

BIC Cello has five manufacturing plants in India, three in Daman, one each in Gujarat and Uttarakhand. The plant in Gujarat, which opened in 2019, is also the largest in Asia and manufactures products not just for India but for the international market as well.

“Consumer preferences in the stationery market are constantly evolving. Our audiences cover a wide demographic, which means that what they look for in a product significantly varies,” elaborates Nikolakis. “BIC Cello will continue to build market capabilities in India and evaluate enhanced levels of investments behind both distributors and consumers.” As the market evolves inexorably towards greater digitisation, keeping abreast of changes will determine the future of the Indian stationery sector, and BIC Cello seems well poised to adapt to this. 

Reaching out 

“The increased focus and dependency on social media during the pandemic have allowed us to reach new consumers and stay connected to the ones we already have,” says Manos Nikolakis, Director & General Manager of BIC Cello India. “We worked to create meaningful content for our followers and provided them with educational solutions to engage their children, in enjoyable and convenient ways. In the last few months, we have collaborated with key influencers and communities to run strategic campaigns and activations. For instance, for National Poetry Day, we partnered with Kavishala to crowdsource poetry. Similarly, for National Ballpoint Day, we worked with popular artists to create inspiring imagery and content centred around hope and optimism. These collaborations worked well, helped drive demand and increase sales for the category.”

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