What Is It About Cheap Disposable Pens?

I went to our kitchen pantry the other day and retrieved the last two tea bags from the box. Customary in our household is everyone helps draft the shopping list for the next grocery store run. This mundane domestic task is completed with a sticky note pad in the drawer next to the silverware. Usually right next to the sticky pad is a disposable pen that is required to complete said task. This particular time I picked up a Papermate ComfortMate Ultra 1.0. An inexpensive, poor writing, rudimentary click disposable pen.

Papermate UltraNow I love my pens but I’m not so in love with them that I need to debate whether I write TEA BAGS with a wet fine nib or go up to a medium. I don’t have any idea how this Papermate pen ended up under my roof so it got me thinking and I set out on a quest to collect all the disposable cheap pens around the house. I gathered this eclectic representation of the disposable gel, ballpoint and rollerball pen industry and a few advertising freebies.

Bunch of DisposablesI often wonder about how non-pen people go about choosing what writing instruments to buy. I realize there a lot of pharmaceutical and other advertising pens going around so those probably reside with a good part of the population. I suspect a lot of the above were collected by trying to reach the $25 free shipping minimum with my friends at JetPens. Even without JetPens there is such a wide variety of brands and models in all the retail outlets. Recently while browsing in Walgreens, a local drugstore chain, I was impressed with the breadth of the writing instruments aisle. Standing there I surmised a couple of drivers that might prompt a trip home for any of these pens.

  • Price
  • End Cap Product Placement
  • Packaging / Marketing (New & Improved, Smoothest Ink on the Planet, etc)
  • Aesthetics (that’s a cool looking pen!)
  • Brand loyalty

I’m sure there are others. I recall as a corporate office supply buyer when I purchased at least a million Papermate stick pens for $.72 a dozen. Granted that was back in the 80s but they worked and they were cheap. During that same period I also recall rummaging through the supply cabinet looking for the cool pens for my desk. You could sometimes even sweet talk / bribe the department administrative assistant in charge of supplies to buy your favorites if they came by the dozen and could pass the test as a cheap disposable.

Most of the disposables I’ve used over the years write well enough to get the task at hand completed. Today’s example, the Papermate was a disappointment with its skips and uneven flow. In contrast a similar looking pen I recall, and actually wrote a review on, was a Staples branded Sonix rollerball. I was very impressed with it and if I had a need for pens in bulk I would not hesitate to try and work a deal on those.

Have you ever bought pens in bulk or for your business? What is your selection criteria?

Remember: Write something nice……

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7 thoughts on “What Is It About Cheap Disposable Pens?

  1. I wish I could attach a photo. I pick up and use any and all “free” pens. I might use them for a while and then pass them along. Right now….at this minute….I have a gallon size ziploc bag full of those type of pens sitting on my desk. I bought two a bit smaller bags at the thrift store for $3 each that had oodles of disposable/freebie pens in them. I thought I’d take out what I wanted and then move the remainder along. This gallon bag is going to one of my co-workers who has events where pens disappear. I had a really fun time going through the thrift store bags and ended up keeping probably way too many. My criteria for buying bulk quantities of pens are: barrel size and shape and quality – I can’t stand the rubber “blob” that has become common toward the point of the barrel, don’t like a “flexible” barrel; ink flow – must not be scratchy or blob or write erratically; appearance – not just run of the mill; I’m picky and I’m not picky. I’ll see if I can find a way to email you the picture of the gallon bag of pens. Have you tried the InkJoy 100RT? Not enough “drag” on the paper for me but overall a pretty decent pen for not much money at all.

    • Wow you are hardcore. I’m sure you find some gems as I do occasionally when I pick up a pen in an office somewhere. Never knew you could buy them by the bag used! Great find I just don’t know if I NEED any more. Doesn’t sound like you do either but it does sound fun. lol

  2. I do some marketing for a local insurance agency and they have me order their disposable pens. I’ve tried and tried to get them to come off of a little more cash to get at least a name-brand pen, something with a touch of reputation behind it. Something I know that, while not extremely expensive, will write decently well.

    However, when ordering pens, it comes down to a couple of criteria:

    1. Does it come in “our” blue (they have decided to own a certain blue)?
    2. Is it the cheapest pen they offer?

    As a marketing professional (I’m actually a graphic designer, but I got roped into marketing somehow) I think that a company would be better off providing a better-writing pen that people will actually use. If you hand someone a terrible pen with your logo on it, they’re going to write with it maybe once or twice and either toss it immediately, or it will be relegated to the bottom of the desk drawer until they get fed up with the tangle of pens, paperclips, Post-it remnants and spare change and throw it all away. Either way, that pen is going in the trash and you have effectively wasted your 30 cents. Do that 1,000 times and not only have you missed 1,000 opportunities for your brand to be seen, but you have wasted $300 and added 2.7 pounds of plastic to the landfill. Shame on you. 🙂

    But, give someone a pen they’ll actually use, like a nice gel pen or even a good, name brand rollerball pen, and your brand will be seen over and over and over. Every time they pull said pen out of their purse/pocket/briefcase, they’ll think, “This is a nice pen,” and they’ll almost certainly attach your brand to “such a nice pen.” Sure, your up-front cost might initially increase by 50% or so, but your message will be seen repeatedly because the pen will actually be used, unlike the aforementioned counterparts. Maybe you’re a retirement company and someone picks up your nice pen and uses it repeatedly. They’re discussing financials with their spouse and pull out said pen to start writing out a budget and see your information and say, “Honey, we should call these guys. Maybe they can help us figure out our next steps towards retirement.” Boom, you’ve just (potentially) made a sale. And all you had to do was spend an extra 15 cents. Perhaps you’re an auto body shop and a mom-of-three is using your nice(r) pen to write a check to the tow truck driver while she desperately tries to keep her kids from bouncing in and out of a four-lane highway. She’s stressed to the max keeping up with her brats and she’s got no idea where to take her Honda Odyssey minivan. She looks down at the pen and sees your info and tells the driver to take her van there.

    It’s not so much about the up-front cost, but the longevity of the brand visibility. I feel this way about business cards, postcards, flyers, etc. Put your flyers on nice paper. Spend a little more for the super-thick lux cards. Send a postcard with a beautiful envelope. If your items just go right in the trash, your brand, and your money, goes along with it. Give something a little nicer that people will actually notice and use or pay attention to, and your brand and money are much more effective.

    In terms of picking out pens at the office supply store, I have a few go-to pens that I will always pick up:

    Uniball Signo 207/307 (0.5mm)
    Energell RT (0.5mm)
    Pilot G2 (0.38 & 0.5mm)
    Sharpies (for thick outlines on drawings)

    Sorry for the rambling, but your post really got me thinking. Would love to hear your feedback as well!

    • Thanks Matthew for stopping by. I so much agree with your point. I have no marketing background but I’m smart enough to figure out never attach your brand to a crappy product. If you can’t afford a higher quality experience don’t buy anything. I think advertising specialty dollars are better spent on some other logo trinket then a crappy pen.

      That being said I often wondered if there was an industry ANSI number for a good inexpensive pen that you could buy and reorder over and over with confidence instead of a treasure hunt each time in a role like yours. What I have experienced is the industry seems to have figured out aesthetics, cushy grips, good knocks and modern looks for a really inexpensive price. All those extras have to cost more than just a plain stick pen. Why not divert some that investment to the refill and make it a better writer. I am always on the lookout for the few gems. Thanks again for your insight, great read.

  3. I get really precious about pens! It has to feel nice and write nicely, but this seems to have very little correlation with the price sometimes! Cheap pens are often the nicest.

    • Thanks Ben for stopping by. We probably both agree that there is no consistent correlation between price and quality with inexpensive pens. Still a great writer to me and dirt cheap is the Staples branded Sonix pens.

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