Eye-catching new items, stores drive up sales, but product prices also on the rise
Liu Yang of Beijing said she was shocked when she saw the prices of the products at a stationery store that her daughter wanted to visit.
"I thought a pencil would just cost a few yuan, but the ones there were sold for 30 yuan ($4.19). I understand the idea of robotic vacuums to clean desks, but electric erasers? Is it necessary to have an electric appliance to do something as small as erasing a word?"
But Liu said there were many even pricier items.
Her daughter picked out a pen that can display presentations, a ballpoint pen with a small fan on top and a journal that people can write in to relieve stress. The journal also has a plastic pig figure on its cover that can be pinched for more stress relief. That — and other somewhat extravagant items that Liu had never heard of — cost her nearly 300 yuan.
Liu is not the only parent whose budget is feeling the effects of increasingly expensive stationery and related items. Social media platforms said "toys or stationery" and "high-priced stationery" have become popular searches.
Recently, Weibo and short-video platform Douyin reported discussions trending on such topics as "gel pen sells for 55 yuan" and "why stationery is getting more and more expensive".
Many stationery stores set aside special back-to-school sections that sell items with promotional labels such as "necessary for students" and "recommended by teachers".
While including some basic academic tools, best-sellers include items with such embellishments as those that display cartoons or that are embedded with dolls. Some items are co-branded with well-known intellectual properties, such as the Japanese manga series One Piece, with prices ranging from dozens to hundreds of yuan per item.
"My daughter and her friends also long for imported items or those labeled as having a limited supply," Liu said.
Also, the rising popularity of blind boxes, which are sold without the customer knowing the contents until they buy it, has led to some stationery merchants selling their own blind boxes.
"The extra step of having to guess what you'll get can increase the total cost by 50 yuan or more for almost the exact same items," she complained.
Market experts say stationery merchants are seeking ways to pry money out of parents' pockets as the market has boomed in recent years.
The Chinese market for stationery and related items stood at 163.89 billion yuan in 2020, according to Beijing-based Intelligence Research Group. About 300 million students and 100 million office workers are the most important consumers in the market, it said.
The growing market has attracted numerous businesses. There are over 7.04 million stationery-related companies in China, according to Tianyancha, a corporate information-sharing site. Of those, more than 5.66 million have been established within the past five years — over 80 percent of the total.
Last year alone, more than 2.14 million new enterprises were registered, and the annual registration growth rate reached 39.35 percent, the highest in history, according to Tianyancha.
Wang Yiran, a stationery store owner in Huilongguan community in Beijing's Changping district, said more and more customers are focused on products instead of prices.
"They'd rather pay double or even triple the price for pens with their beloved virtual characters, or imported items, with those from Japan being particularly popular. Middle school students are more likely than elementary students to have such preferences.
"Many customers think Japanese stationery and related items are well-designed in appearance and function. For instance, there are Japanese pens specially designed for left-handers, and Japanese ballpoint pens that last longer," Wang said.
Posts on lifestyle site Xiaohongshu related to imported Japanese stationery have surpassed 40,000. Posts that mention Japanese company Pilot, best known for its writing instruments but which also makes stationery and jewelry, had reached more than 120,000 as of mid-September.
On user-review site Douban, fans created an online club called the "House of Japanese Stationery". On Douyin, a collection of episodes featuring Japanese stationery and related items had nearly 1 million views as of mid-September.
Domestic brands are also stepping up efforts to develop high-end products with additional functions and features such as stress-relief journals, as well as improving product appearance and increasing brand value through cooperation with well-known IPs.
Jiumu, a high-end product line of domestic brand Shanghai M&G Stationery Inc, recorded revenue of 950 million yuan last year, a year-on-year increase of 70 percent despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jiumu has developed chain stores with decor and product selections that are more elaborate in function and appearance, more creative and with more cooperation with well-known IPs. The goal is to better attract consumers who frequently buy stationery and related products and who are willing to pay more, the company said.
M&G said in its financial report that the rapid development of Jiumu is an important driving force in M&G's revenue growth, which hit 34 percent year-on-year in 2021. It said the industry is facing challenges as well as opportunities presented by the growing demand for individualized products and services, as people born after 2000 become the most important customer base. It said the industry's revenue growth will be driven by high-end products with better design and quality.
M&G told People's Daily that the company plans for Jiumu to create a more appealing atmosphere at its stores to draw customers in and motivate them to stay longer. "Further efforts to improve consumers' shopping experience are key to generating new growth points for retail stationery," it said.
Jiumu had 463 stores across the country by the end of last year.
Experts also say the market as a whole would be well served to pay close attention to what customers are saying.
"I wouldn't mind paying more for better product quality, but are some functions really necessary?" said Liu, the Beijing mother. "Wouldn't they distract students while they are studying?"
What's more unbearable is that some shops mix higher-priced products with those that are priced lower, and parents discover the price disparity only when they are about to pay.
"In addition, many items have strong fragrances and bright colors. They are very appealing to children, but I'm reluctant to buy them, considering that my 10-year-old daughter might chew on the pencils while studying. I'm concerned about whether such products are safe," the company added.
In the face of an increasingly competitive market, the frequency of surging prices and unapproved products has also attracted the attention of regulatory authorities.
Last year, the China Consumers Association warned parents about toy-like items with different shapes and decorations, and brightly colored and scented stationery.
In August, the Beijing Consumer Association issued a reminder for parents. It called for making sensible choices when buying stationery instead of just competing to buy the fanciest items. It also urged caution in purchasing stationery-related items with toys that have shapes and decorations that could present a hazard.
Also in August, Beijing's bureau for market regulation issued a letter of reminder and warning on prices at stationery businesses. It said prices should be labeled clearly and accurately to help avoid mixing of items of different prices, which can confuse consumers.
The State Administration for Market Regulation also stipulated in August that businesses shall not sell blind boxes to children under the age of eight.