Thoughts on the WHSmith and Cult Pens Merger.


This isn’t my normal sort of post here on The Finer Point. I normally focus on reviews, posts on how I use my stationery and load outs. But I felt I needed to write this editorial piece to share my thoughts on the merger of WHSmith and Cult Pens.

WHSmith is a British high street staple. Most British stationery addicts have a story of buying their back to school stationery from Smiths, deliberating for hours on end on the right pencil case, what pencils they needed, what the right eraser would be. I am no different. I used to love Smiths, spending a lot of my pocket money there and being excited when I saw something new. But Smiths is nothing but nostalgic. Now a trip to Smiths is rare and chaotic. Shelves are stacked high with clutter, navigation is hard work, staff are unhelpful and on each occasion my clarity is left at the door. The stationery section is uninspiring with the standard brands and products that they have always offered. There is nothing new and nothing that opens up the stationery world the consumer.

I had assumed that Smiths were living on their history, still part of the high street but not active. The British public don’t like Smiths and haven’t done for eight years. The acquisition of Cult Pens is a declaration of their commitment to the stationery portion of their business but I am struggling to make sense of this move. I haven’t seen any indication of Smiths commitment to stationery in any way, either in store or online. I haven’t seen them branch out into new areas, offer new product lines that have a proven success. I haven’t found any reason in my three years of running this blog to visit Smiths for a single stationery item. I can therefore assume from my personal experience and active interest in this hobby and community that Smiths haven’t done any of this.

It’s because of this that I am surprised by the Smiths acquisition of Cult Pens. Smiths have done very well out of this, they have acquired the biggest British online stationery retailer. They’ve acquired skills and expertise that they don’t seem to own themselves. But this could all be to the detriment to the consumer, the enthusiast and potentially Cult Pens. We could see them swallowed into the corporate machine and hampered by politics and processes. I have worked in several large corporate companies where ideas are impossible to achieve because the system doesn’t support or allow it. And I don’t seem to be the only person with these concerns, Twitter responses seem to mirror my own, there is a full on Reddit thread and a FP Geeks thread most of which highlight concern.

I hope Cult Pens aren’t stymied by this merger, I hope they are left alone to continue their business in the same vein. I hope that how they work, their helpful and friendly staff, their knowledge of the market, their product offering, I hope that this rubs off on Smiths and the high street brand benefits from this and the consumer notices a change. This seems like a best case scenario which the cynic in me doesn’t think is achievable.

All of this depends on the company’s structure, the position of the Cult Pens staff within Smiths’ organisation. It’s not easy to change an old company, get the buy-in from their existing staff at a corporate level and in-stores. All of this will be a long, slow process full of resistance.

It’s no surprise by my tone and questions throughout this post that I am concerned. I am a fan of Cult Pens and I like that there is a UK company that offers such a broad range of products. I have had nothing but positive experiences with Cult Pens. I think the lure of WHSmiths brand, of marketing support and the promise of growth may have accelerated this acquisition. I am sure there are ideas and plans to grow both businesses, I just hope Cult Pens isn’t absorbed and lost in the corporate world at Smiths and that we lose a well loved small business.

My 2017 Stationery Resolutions Reviewed

At the beginning of this year I decided to make some stationery related resolutions. I am never normally a fan of new years resolutions because I always break them, and I don’t think a new year is the only time to make resolutions. But I did assume stationery resolutions would be easier to keep. So in today’s post, the final day of 2017, I will look at how I fared under each one.

Resolution 1: Learn Brush Lettering.

This one I think I have done pretty well. The goal here was simply to try brush lettering, find and improve on my style and do it as much as I possibly could. During this venture I have tested out several different tools some of which I reviewed in this post. I think my preferred brush pen at the moment is the Tombow Fudenosuke pens, both the firm and soft tips. These pens are really nice to handle and give some great line variation. I am in no way a master brush letterer but I think I can tick this resolution off as achieved.

Resolution: Achieved.

Practicing brush lettering styles for a New Baby card.

Practicing brush lettering styles for a New Baby card.

Resolution 2: Sketch.

This is an easy fail. I have intermittently drawn throughout the year, I have watched thousands of urban sketchers on YouTube but I have never found a way to be consistent with my own sketching and I am disappointed with not meeting this resolution. I have tested and bought a number of tools to help me to sketch but I’ve been very bad at the doing part. Going into 2018 I really want to make this a habit, sketching daily and borrowing from master urban sketcher Liz Steel sketching an everyday item each and every day. I just have to settle on the right object.

Resolution: Fail.

A sketch from August, which has numerous flaws, the biggest being poor watercolour technique. 

A sketch from August, which has numerous flaws, the biggest being poor watercolour technique. 

Resolution 3: Consume more.

I have made a conscious effort to consume more of the items I have. I have fought the urge to buy the new limited edition items, mainly pocket notebooks, working my way through the stash I have on hand.

The majority of this years used pocket notebooks in a very hand gift box  

The majority of this years used pocket notebooks in a very hand gift box  

Looking at other stationery items I have been rotating pens and using more pencils. For my [first NaNoWriMo challenge][0] this year I wrote everything out by hand to consume some of the notebooks and ink I had.

As always I think I could have done more to consume the stationery I have, but I am an addict and I always end up being lured in by something pretty.

Resolution: Partial achievement.

Resolution 4: Use a bottle of fountain pen ink.

This was almost a joke resolution and does sit within the resolution to consume more. I took the idea from Brad on [The Pen Addict podcast][1]. I have failed miserably at this task during the year but as I have been consuming more in general I have noticed my ink levels in various bottles has gone down. Full bottles are almost half empty. I haven’t changed inks in my fountain pens as regularly but rather refilled and refilled time and time again.

Resolution: Partial achievement.

Ink levels are going down

Ink levels are going down

What does 2018 hold?

Probably much of the same. I want to continue consuming more of the stationery I own. This has been a good 2017 resolution. Most of the stationery I bought because its something I like and therefore it makes sense to use more of it. Maybe this year I’ll actually finish off one of these ink bottles, or maybe that is just one of those resolutions that can never be achieved.

2018 will be the year that I actually start sketching. For this to be achievable I have to make this a daily habit, not a pipe dream that I am scared of attempting. Fear shouldn’t stop me from sketching.

Does anyone else have any resolutions for 2018? Will these be set in stone? Will you be committing to them?

This year I am going simpler, below are my 2018 resolutions written with a Baron Fig School Set Archer pencil in an Ambition edition Field Notes.


Adventures in Stationery by James Ward: Book Review

I have had the Adventures in Stationery book on my shelf for some time and have been really slow in getting round to actually reading it. Wards aptly named book goes through his stationery experiences. It’s nice to read a book written by a Brit as I can easily relate to a lot of his stationery experiences, however I have to admit I was quite disappointed with this book. I thought I would really geek out reading this but that didn't happen.

This book does have the odd relatable chapter. I enjoyed finding out the back story of Tipp-Ex and how this product came about. Similarly the chapter on pencils was very interesting. The one chapter that I thought I would enjoy was the back to school chapter. This is where the addiction starts for most of us after all and it’s a period I remember well. I had a Pepsi pencil case at one point and definitely spent a ridiculous amount of time in my local WHSmith trying to pick out the right stationery for the year. But I felt a little let down by this chapter expecting to read more on Wards experiences. However it quickly progressed onto the Helix story and Wards handwriting development through school. My experience was different to Wards, we moved from the Staedtler Noris pencil onto a Parker Vector fountain pen. Berol handwriting pens didn’t make an appearance for me.

This is one small example of my feelings towards Wards book. The thing is I just found it a little dull. It explored quite a bit of how certain stationery items came about, which at some point could be useful, but right now I didn’t find it very interesting. On top of this the layout of Wards book doesn’t really work for me. A format similar to the new Stationery Fever book could have worked really well. If you are interested in reading this book I would recommend just dipping in and out concentrating on the various chapters which you find interesting. Reading it front to back is pretty tough going.

2017 Stationery Resolutions

A selection of some of the stationery items on my desk

A selection of some of the stationery items on my desk

I have come across a few blog posts over the past few weeks looking at 2017 stationery related resolutions. The Pen Addict covered this in their most recent episode, Priya from The London Parchment shared her resolutions for 2017 so I thought it would be fun to make my own list. I have shared here my planner plans for 2017, but stationery resolutions are something quite different.

My 2017 Stationery Resolutions

  1. Learn brush lettering - I have a few brush pens which I have been playing around with for a little while but this year I want to really hone in on this and practice my lettering. I am always in awe of well lettered envelopes and cards therefore 2017 will be the year I implement this myself.
  2. Sketch - this is something I had started in 2016 and I have enjoyed it. I have taken a sketch book with my on a few short trips away and on the odd occasion drawn something memorable from the trip. Copying Liz Steele I would then date the sketch and add a small bit of information about it. This year I really want to make this a real practice. Looking back on the simple sketches I have done I really like the way the sketch book tells a story. The sketches within them are really not great, the scales are all off, my watercolour skills are dire but despite this I like looking back through the sketches I have done.
  3. Consume more - I have a lot of stationery, so with this in mind this year I want to actually use what I own, rather than just buy more.
  4. Use a bottle of fountain pen ink - I liked this idea from Brad on the most recent Pen Addict episode therefore I thought I would take this one on myself. I don’t have a specific bottle of ink in mind any bottle will do.
Waddesdon Manor sketch  

Waddesdon Manor sketch  

These resolutions are purely made for fun, but I will review them at the end of the year and see if I achieved any of them. I’d love to hear any stationery resolutions you may have made this year, please share them in the comments below.