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Domestic Sector Rallies as Mainland Notebook Sales Continue to Soar

A trend originally imported from Japan, mainland notebook sales now merit a dedicated zone at the Beijing International Stationery Exhibition, an expo that saw several domestic suppliers bidding to tackle the supremacy of imported designs.

Photo: Notable notebooks: Original designs on show at the Beijing Stationery Expo.
Notable notebooks: Original designs on show at the Beijing Stationery Expo.
Photo: Notable notebooks: Original designs on show at the Beijing Stationery Expo.
Notable notebooks: Original designs on show at the Beijing Stationery Expo.

The mainland's love of notebooks – daily journals with a surprisingly wide range of add-on features – is a fairly recent import from Japan, where such items have long commanded an ardent and adoring fanbase. It is a phenomenon that has been pretty much replicated in China, with students and young female office workers among the most enthusiastic adherents.

Given the almost cult status of such products, it should come as little surprise that the dedicated notebook special zone proved to be one of the true highlights of the inaugural China (Beijing) International Stationery Exhibition. In all, more than 40 notebook brands exhibited within the zone, an area that enjoyed one of the highest levels of footfall across the entire event.

According to one exhibitor, such enthusiasm has been commonplace at every notebook-related expo they have attended. Long before the doors open on any such show, he said, there is always a huge queue of notebook aficionados, all jostling to be the first across the threshold.

Such is the popularity of many of the leading notebook brands that they are now widely available in specialist stores in the majority of China's leading cities. One high-end bookstore in Beijing, for example, carries a stock of Midori notebooks. One of the leading Japanese brands in the sector, its travellers' editions feature premium leather covers from Thailand and typically cost about RMB358 (US$53). This quality feel is also reflected in the paper chosen for its inside pages – Midori's proprietary MD paper range, made in Japan and designed specifically for use with fountain pens.

Beyond Japan, as far afield as Europe and the US, the notebook market has been long established and commands a huge user base. The majority of the European and Japanese brands have gravitated towards the upper end of the market, developing unique, multi-faceted designs along the way. As a consequence, such items seldom sell for less than RMB200, while many classic limited editions come with price tags that are 10 or even 20 times higher.

In the mainland market, many of these established brands have attracted a similarly devoted following. Among the most popular is Hobonichi, a Japanese brand that comes in a range of diverse styles, all featuring the same refined workmanship. Of the European contenders, Italy's Moleskine is particularly prized, much as it was by many of the continent's leading artistic figures, including Van Gogh. With slightly less history, the UK's 100-year-old loose-leaf Filofax brand is still very much in demand, as is Germany's Leuchtturm1917, which is particularly well regarded for the quality of its ink-proof, acid-free paper.

By comparison, the mainland's own notebook-manufacturing industry is still somewhat in its infancy. Gone are the days, however, when all such notebooks had to be imported, with production in the domestic sector escalating every year.

Photo: The Kinbor/Jiukoushan Life Document range.
The Kinbor/Jiukoushan Life Document range.
Photo: The Kinbor/Jiukoushan Life Document range.
The Kinbor/Jiukoushan Life Document range.
Photo: Owspace’s Solo and Symphony notebooks.
Owspace's Solo and Symphony notebooks.
Photo: Owspace’s Solo and Symphony notebooks.
Owspace's Solo and Symphony notebooks.

Indeed, the mainland now boasts several premium notebook brands of its own. As well as these emerging brands, a number of the country's leading stationery companies and bookstores have also entered the market. Kinbor, a stylish notebook brand developed by Guangbo, a Zhejiang-based stationery group, has been available in a range of different editions since 2016. Beijing's Owspace Bookstore, meanwhile, has branched out into the launch of two distinct notebook brands – Solo and Symphony. Overall, many of these domestic brands are now putting a greater emphasis on design originality, while keeping their prices below the RMB100 level. Despite the arrival of these more affordable items, however, the average annual spend of most notebook enthusiasts is said to be rising.

In terms of the size of the market, there are more than 120 notebook-related groups on douban.com, one of China's most popular social networks, with the largest of them said to have nearly 210,000 members. Meanwhile, Baidu's Shouzhangba ('notebook bar') is also said to have more than 200,000 followers. From the posts shared by enthusiasts, it would also seem that the domestically produced brands are gradually gaining acceptance, even among hardcore fans.

Creativity and Context Marketing

According to a circular issued by the Ministry of Information Industry and Technology (MIIT) last year, there is to be a concerted effort to jointly develop the stationery and office supplies sector and the cultural and creative industries. It is hoped that this initiative will boost the cultural content of such items, delivering added value to both sectors. In additional moves, technological, product and marketing innovation have also been encouraged across the sector in a bid to boost its competitiveness at the international level.

As a sign of the success of this policy, the Shanghai-based Jiukoushan brand has emerged as a market leader in the domestically produced notebook sector. As well as producing its own designs, including Jiukoushan cat-themed notebooks and a range featuring a variety of different lifestyle motifs, the company has also worked with a number of renowned illustrators, including Li Ming and the Yefengji Workshop. The success of these joint ventures has played a key role in developing the company's reputation and building its following among notebook enthusiasts.

Hoping to find similar acclaim, Guangbo's Kinbor-branded stand at the event showcased the company's range of in-house designed notebooks, including its Traveller and Sweet Dreams collections. The company has also worked on a collaborative basis with a number of third parties, including Li Zhimi, the celebrated water-ink artist, and the company behind the Huangyou Camera app.

Explaining Kinbor's approach to the sector, Chen Jiaoqing, the company's Head of Brand Planning, said: "As well as having our own in-house design, our brand is strong enough that other brand and IP owners are keen to collaborate with us. Overall, we believe that creative designs are the key to building market share in the notebook sector."

To maximise the impact of its display stand at the show, Kinbor dispensed with many of the traditional approaches and, instead, sought to highlight its products by mixing and matching a variety of different real-world props, creating a series of different environments where its notebooks could be used. This novel approach seemed to pay off, with many of the show's visitors – both end users and distributors – seemingly captivated by the display.

Add-on Products

Unsurprisingly, the popularity of notebooks has had a knock-on effect to a number of related products and accessories, including paper tapes, seals, stickers and coloured pens. Paper tapes, in particular, were on show on virtually every stand within the notebook zone, with their ubiquity even surpassing that of the notebooks themselves. Commenting on the diversity on offer, a sales assistant on one of the stands said: "Overall, people don't tend to replace their notebooks all that often, but they get through paper tapes far more quickly."

Photo: Ubiquitous accessories: Paper tapes.
Ubiquitous accessories: Paper tapes.
Photo: Ubiquitous accessories: Paper tapes.
Ubiquitous accessories: Paper tapes.
Photo: Seal of approval from notable fans.
Seal of approval from notable fans.
Photo: Seal of approval from notable fans.
Seal of approval from notable fans.

The words of one buyer, 24-year-old Wang Yue, seemed to confirm this. Explaining her own purchases, she said: "As I still have several notebooks at home, today I just came along to accompany my friends. When I saw so many new paper-tape designs, however, I just couldn't resist buying a few."

In many ways, the growing demand for related products has underlined the long-term potential of the mainland notebook market, particularly as it begins to cross over into the digital sector. Given that on-the-go internet access is now commonplace, the growing use of online notebooks is seen as an inevitable step in the sector's evolution.

In Japan, a number of dedicated notebook apps are already popular, with Lifebear, Petatto Calendar, and Refills Lite, in particular, proving to be the stalwarts of the smartphone sector. Typically, such apps come with a range of features, including task management, health monitoring, mother and baby care and even the facility for running a personal gourmet diary.

Across the mainland, there are also indications that the notebook sector is beginning its digital migration. Although several smartphone notebook apps are already available – including Color Duocai Shouzhang ('colourful journal') and Fenfen Riji ('pink diary') – as yet their categories, features and style are said to be somewhat underwhelming.

More success, however, has been found with the Traditional Notebook+App model, which is seen as having considerable potential for market expansion. According to the head of one notebook brand, her company is already looking to incorporate digital technology into its products, believing this to be the coming trend. Despite this, she maintains the traditional notebook sector will survive, saying: "In essence, notebook owners enjoy writing by hand, believing that handwritten materials have a unique kind of warmth."

Echoing this, Wang said: "Writing down your feelings in notebooks is a completely different experience to using mobile phones. It has a genuinely cathartic effect and lets you recall memories in a truly unique way when you revisit your notebook years later."

Photo: Enthusiasts seeking out new designs and accessories in the dedicated notebook zone.
Enthusiasts seeking out new designs and accessories in the dedicated notebook zone.
Photo: Enthusiasts seeking out new designs and accessories in the dedicated notebook zone.
Enthusiasts seeking out new designs and accessories in the dedicated notebook zone.

The first China (Beijing) International Stationery Exhibition was held at Beijing's China International Exhibition Center from 28-30 July 2017.

Meng Jie, Special Correspondent, Beijing

 

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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