Not Just Pencils Anymore

CW Pencil Enterprise evolved from a specialty shop into an office-supply store during the pandemic. But is it enough?

| 05 Aug 2021 | 11:46

On a gray Friday night in December of last year, the world’s only pencil store closed. For six years CW Pencil Enterprise had let Caroline Weaver turn a lifelong obsession into a prosperous livelihood. She had hosted book club meetings at her shop in Orchard Street, drawn global visitors, and educated the public about why the pencil was “perfect.” But months of COVID-induced isolation had made her rethink the entire business model.

Weaver had been hinting that the closure was coming. In July 2020, she posted some existential questions on the store’s Instagram account: “How can I be a more supportive employer? How can I better serve and educate my customers? How can I contribute more to my local community?”

A few months later she answered some of those questions in a blog post. “We’ll be shifting gears to provide the things our neighbors and our community have been asking us for all this time, we’ll be re-opening as a full service office supply store.”

It took nearly 70 days to transform. On February 24, 2021 CW Pencil Enterprise 2.0 opened its doors. Same location, but no longer just pencils. Now there were pens, markers, journals, notebooks, bags, glues, stickers, and scissors. Everything an office would need was hand-selected and arranged in a candy-colored, Instagrammable display.

“Our customers really have been responding to the new things that we’re selling,” said Weaver in a recent interview. “Especially in the local community. Because we sell a lot of stuff now that is hard to get around here, even just simple things like a pair of scissors or a roll of tape.”

Target Market

Weaver told stories of the chef who needed permanent markers for his kitchen, and the shopkeeper desperate for a tape dispenser. The store offered lamination services, perfect for restaurants that were now putting their menus on QR-codes. Besides businesses, individual neighbors working from home could drop in to print out the odd document. These people are Weaver’s target market.

“My priority is to serve that community before anybody else,” she said. “But we need an online store in order to survive financially.”

Roughly half of the store’s revenue comes from online sales. Selling through the store’s website has allowed the physical location to stay open, but also resulted in headaches for the staff. When a new website went live in March 2021, individual pencils were no longer available for sale. Orders could not be adjusted after being submitted. And problems with a shipping address were fully on the customer.

A blog post explained that these measures would make e-retail more cost-effective. “We’ve thought long and hard about the things in our business that are costing us money and slowing us down. The truth is, we sell mostly inexpensive things with low margins, so we can’t afford to cover things like free returns, or free shipping like some businesses can.”

Back in the store, Weaver explained that many web customers would order up to 30 different individual pencils. Those orders were time-consuming to prepare and easy to mess up. In addition, she could tell that many of the people buying pencils in bulk were never going to use them. And that was something she wanted to change.

“Truthfully, it frustrates me, she said. “To see customers who come in and just buy stuff just for the sake of having it, and are never going to use it ... my job as a retailer is to encourage better consumer behavior. And I take that seriously.”

Conscious Consumerism

Weaver takes all of her business seriously. She’s not just trying to change consumer behavior. She wants to sell sustainable, ethically made products. Another goal of the store relaunch was to stock items that lined up with her own personal brand of conscious consumerism.

“I just thought to myself, ‘I wouldn’t buy half the stuff that I sell,’” said Weaver. “Because I don’t agree with the ethics of how it was sourced or the way that it’s packaged or the fact that it’s something that nobody would ever need or use.”

Now the shelves are lined with products she feels proud of. But doubts linger. Weaver says that doing the right thing by the planet and customers is in tension with doing the right thing by her employees.

“It is really, really hard to run a business and keep the lights on and pay the employees an actual living wage and do things like provide healthcare while still running a business ethically from a consumer perspective,” she said.

Weaver has done what she can for her employees and customers. But it is not clear if her efforts will be rewarded. She says the pandemic is not over for her business and wonders aloud if the metamorphosis will be enough to keep it going.

“Quite frankly, it was a matter of either evolving or closing. Those were my two options. I chose to evolve. And still, I’m not sure that we’re gonna make it.”

“My priority is to serve [the] community before anybody else. But we need an online store in order to survive financially.” Caroline Weaver of CW Pencil Enterprise