Nancy Olson - Contributor
ForbesLife - May 8, 2020
Writer, editor, publisher and fan of all things handwritten.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things in our lives, not the least of which is the way we shop. Many of us haven’t set foot in any establishment for the past several weeks, ordering such essentials as groceries online and having drinks with our friends via Zoom or some equivalent. And as the country gradually opens for business—whatever your thoughts on this—we will undoubtedly remain wary of what we used to call “life” and all the face-to-face interactions it entails.
I, like others, sense that things will be irrevocably changed by the time we reach the juncture of a new normal, though I don’t know precisely what this means for the retail scene. Our self-constructed cocoons, inherently lonely as they are, feel safe, and security will be high on our minds for the foreseeable future. Besides, there aren’t many shopping needs that can’t be met right from our own permanently indented couches. Right?
Buying things that typically require interaction can be trickier. Like experiencing the buttery tactility of a new leather purse. Or testing the weight and balance of a coveted writing instrument, understood only by true pen aficionados.
Not so, says Chris Sullivan, president of Fahrney’s pen shop in Washington, D. C. Having perfected the art of online commerce many years ago, he says a high-touch, taste-driven object, like a pen, may indeed be successfully purchased sight unseen. In fact, very little of his company’s modus operandi has changed during the past several weeks, even though the brick-and-mortar downtown store has temporarily closed its doors due to the novel coronavirus. Website, phone and catalog sales are booming, he shares, and the majority of Fahrney’s sales—as usual—are via its uber-friendly web store and its equally amicable catalog.
“Our parents started Fahrney’s catalog in 1975,” says Sullivan of the pre-internet venture. “It was a time of infancy for the catalog industry itself, yet alone a writing instrument catalog. All the pen brands, distributors and sales reps said it would never work! ‘Why would the customer buy from a catalog sight unseen without trying the pen first?’”
Today, 50% of pen buyers browse the company catalog beforehand, Sullivan explains. In this way, they familiarize themselves at their own convenience with a variety of products via the full-color, well-designed magazine—the equivalent of strolling the aisles of a luxury store.
The company’s website allows one to place a catalog order or sort for products using a number of criteria, including brand, color and price. Vice President Maria Hanson, Sullivan’s sister, says it’s important to note that just as pens come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes, the same is true for price. There’s something for everyone, and shopping online provides the ultimate in discretionary shopping.
Via a toll-free number, Fahrney’s personnel help newbie pen buyers choose just products via a series of detailed questions, including writing style, intended use of the pen and even type of paper preferred. More seasoned pen buyers, on the other hand, typically know what they’re looking for and often have prior experience with a particular brand and its assets. Personal shoppers are available to make the whole process as intimate an experience as possible. Interestingly, product returns are only slightly higher than when the writing instruments are purchased in the store.
A whole host of other high-end products are available online these days—including watches, jewelry and other designer accessories—and have been since way before the pandemic began. We’ve become collectively comfortable in making purchases at the push of a button. Recent shelter-at-home initiatives have further entrenched this stance and have even introduced online shopping to the more reticent among us.
Of course a bit of “buyer beware” is never wrong, and Sullivan’s advice will work for buying just about any luxury product online and will help guide you through the weeks ahead: Deal with a reputable company—an authorized local dealer if possible—and be sure to check out warranties and return policies. Products may cost a bit more, but it will be well worth it in customer service and overall satisfaction.