A little while ago Dr Deans wrote an (as always) interesting article called Buying Local which was mostly about buying products manufactured in your own country. I wanted to look at a different aspect to buying locally, that of buying from a local online retailer. I spoke to Ross of Pure Pens, a gentleman who has been a good supporter of this site (providing several pens to review and many ink samples) but I think most of the points raised are universal and apply wherever in the world you live.
There are two aspects to buying locally that I want to explore: price and convenience.
It is impossible to discuss bringing goods into the UK without talking about customs charges so let’s get that out of the way first. The UK is, at least for now, part of the European Union and this means no customs charges for trade between countries in the Union. There was a time when most items bought outside the EU would slip through without a customs charge but these days, in my experience, it’s rare if one gets through without a 20% Value Added Tax (VAT) charge and an £8 handling charge. This means that a pen bought for $20 from, say, Japan, can end up costing over $35 by the time you get it in your hands (without even counting shipping charges). There are even more charges (import duties) if the package is worth over £100 but, not having that kind of money to throw about on pens from foreign (or any) climes, I’m not in a position to talk about that with any authority.
I don’t know much about import duties or customs charges in other countries: some don’t have any, some are like the UK, particularly those within the EU. But if you’re in the UK and buying abroad, you have to assume you’re going to be paying charges on anything worth over £20.
This goes some way to explaining some of the prices of products in the UK. It often feels as if UK businesses charge excessive prices but retailers have to pay the same VAT and import duties that we pay as individuals. This is then included in the price. Also included is the cost of storing the products. UK land prices tend not to be cheap and although pens are not the largest items, keeping a large stock of pens and ink, along with running an office, can begin to take up quite a lot of space. (Pure Pens stock over 350 different colours of ink: that can mount up if you’ve got a few bottles of each one.)
This does go someway to explaining many of the price differences between UK retailers and others. I still don’t understand the difference in prices of Pilot products between here and Japan, or even here and the USA. My guess is that Pilot’s distributors in the UK are charging retailers premium prices.
On the whole, then, with just one or two exceptions, any items costing over £20 will see savings from buying overseas almost wiped out by shipping costs and customs charges.
There is nothing more convenient than going to your local well-stocked pen shop, trying out a few pens, getting some expert advice and then walking home with the perfect purchase. All that’s wrong with this scenario is the distinct lack of local well-stocked pen shops. There are some in the UK but not all that many.
However, we’re quite lucky in the UK to have, for now, a pretty good postal service. We’ve come to expect next day delivery, usually for no extra cost, when buying from UK pen retailers. This is distinctly not the case the further from home you make your purchases.
(I treat buying from Japan as a present to myself: by the time it’s arrived I’ve usually forgotten I’d bought it and it’s a lovely surprise. But most of the time if I’ve decided to buy something I really rather like getting it quickly.)
Unless you are really into buying your future self surprise presents, next day delivery is something special and is almost as good as an instant purchase.
This is even more important when something goes wrong. Fountain pen nibs, in particular, can be tricky blighters. As Ross says,
We try to give excellent customer service to everyone who buys from us. Most of the time things go through without any issues, but there are the odd occasions when there is a mechanical problem with a pen, nib or a refill. We hold lots of stock here and learn our products so that when something goes wrong, we know the more common issues and have the parts available to sort the problem out. Buying from overseas and the potential differences in language when trying to explain a problem and the delay in getting replacements can be frustrating, for all types of items, not just pens.
I’ve had some excellent customer service from Franklin-Christoph and TWSBI’s customer service is legendary (perhaps because so many people have had to use it) so it is possible to have good support from overseas but it can take longer and, I have to say, can’t be guaranteed at all from some retailers. This can particularly be the case when buying from eBay or Amazon: you often end up trying to sort out problems with people who either have no knowledge of what you’re talking about or just don’t care.
Something else you can get from an online retailer, wherever they are based and whether you make a purchase or not, is expert advice. Pure Pens’s Pelikan-focused sibling, for example, has a lot of information and other retailers, notably Goulet Pens, have made their reputations through the quality of their advice and information. This information is available wherever you are in the world and is a valuable part of our community.
There are cost savings to be found from buying overseas and sometimes (particularly with Pilot products) these are significant. However, from a UK perspective, they are often not as great as they seem. What you gain by buying from a locally based online retailer, is quick delivery and speedy customer service should anything go wrong.