Do you remember your favourite spot while in school? I remember mine clearly.
It was the little stationery shop close to the playground. I used to pay it a daily visit to gaze at the colourful pencils, erasers, diaries and colours, many of which were imported.
Today, one is spoilt for choice when it comes to purchasing stationery products with the entry of global brands in the Indian market and the presence of domestic players. While visiting a stationery shop is like entering a candy shop, the segment remains highly unorganised.
Few legacy homegrown stationery brands have managed to retain their position of glory. This is largely because of their inability to keep pace with the times, both in terms of design, product range and innovation, relegating them to the status quo of backbenchers.
One outlier brand that has managed to hold its own in this highly fragmented market, giving more prominent stationery players in the country sleepless nights, is DOMS. In just over a decade, the Umbergaon-based brand has spread its wings across the length and breadth of the country, growing at over 20 per cent CAGR since 2013.
With the pandemic almost a forgotten memory and the demand for school stationery going up, the company is confident of achieving Rs 1,000 crore revenues in FY 2023, a 60 per cent growth compared to pre-Covid levels of FY20. This is significant when one considers that Hindustan Pencils and Camlin Kokuyu, DOMS' biggest domestic competitors, earn close to Rs 500 in revenue each, according to Tofler.
While sales figures of Hindustan Pencils could not be estimated due to lack of data, the gross sales figures of Camlin as per Ace Equity stood at Rs 548 crore for FY22. In comparison, DOMS gross sales for the same period stood at approximately Rs 700 crore.
DOMS started its journey as RR Industries in 1975 in Gujarat. Its founders, the late Rasikbhai Raveshia and the late Mansukhlal Rajani, set it up as a small pencil manufacturing company in Gujarat, acting as original equipment for the bigger domestic stationery brands of those times. The brand’s current avatar was launched by Santosh, Rasikbhai’s son, in 2008.
Santosh Raveshia, managing director of DOMS
“My father believed that for the next generation to remain invested in the business, we must start something of our own–our own brand. He even began work on it in 2001 but passed away in a road accident in 2002. I was just 24 then and took some time to understand the ropes of the business,” recalls Santosh Raveshia, managing director of DOMS.
Santosh launched DOMS with just three product lines–pencils, erasers and sharpeners. To test the waters, the company first launched its products in Karnataka, which according to his father, was the most challenging market to crack because of the prevalent brand loyalty and consciousness.
“He always said that one must begin with the hardest market because if one succeeds there, success elsewhere is more or else guaranteed,” Santosh reminisces. The senior Raveshia’s prediction turned out to be true.
After gaining acceptance in the South, DOMS expanded its presence in Northern and Western India, its biggest markets today. While 35 per cent of its sales come from the North, 25 per cent comes from the West, while the South and the East contribute 20 per cent each. Today, with over 4,500 channel partners and over 10,000 retail points, the brand has established its grip firmly in the Indian stationery market.
However, this journey wasn’t an easy one.
“I have been running DOMS more like a start-up–barring the negatives often associated with them. Our focus has been getting the product and its pricing right—agar product fail ho gaya to kuch nahi kar sakte (if the product fails, nothing can be done). Owing to limited finances, we never spent too much money on marketing or advertising. We just wanted to create a product that always had something different than its peers,” says Santosh.
The company focused majorly on sales, R&D and people management. It hired a strong salesperson who strategised its pan-India sales and later built his own team. “The sales network that we established then was unconventional and ahead of its time, but interestingly, it is something that MNCs do today.”
R&D remains a vital part of the company and that’s also where a major part of the investment goes. Also, to keep a tab on global trends, DOMS forged a partnership with F.I.L.A., the Italian giant producing writing instruments and fine art business, in 2012. “That really helped develop DOMS into an evolutionary brand of today,” he says.
However, the biggest challenge for DOMS was creating customer loyalty in a market dominated by long-standing brands. “Even being present in the same trade along with them without a penny to spend on marketing was the biggest challenge for us,” Santosh claims.
One of the things that worked for the company was being fully backward integrated. For example, in the case of pencils, it sources everything internally, from the wood to the lead to the paint. Most products are built from scratch, making the company cost-efficient and self-reliant.
“For example, the nibs of the felt pens are made in-house, as is the ink and the cover –everything is made in-house. We had to be economical without compromising on quality. Plus, we had to make profits, something big giants don’t think about much,” says Santosh.
Another challenge was the lack of transparency in the trade because of excessive wholesale trade and product infiltration. In those days, companies weren’t very vigilant about how their distribution networks worked.
DOMS wanted to change this and ensure that its entire distribution base maintained full transparency with each other. “All our channel members are connected as family members. This ensures that no product infiltration happens from one state to another or from one area to another. This is important for any brand that is getting established,” asserts Santosh.
But can one ensure that? “It’s like culturing your kids. It doesn’t happen in a day and there are exceptions, but even if 70 per cent to 80 per cent follows them, our job is done,” Santosh says.
DOMS is also entering the premium segment by introducing new product verticals and bringing in variety in existing ones. However, in a price-conscious economy like India, where people often choose a brand as per the image it carries–cheap or expensive–isn’t being present in both segments hampering brand loyalty?
“Till we give consumers value for money, nothing else matters. It’s not really about a product in the economy or premium segment; it’s about whether the consumer is getting value for the money he is spending. In fact, all our products in the premium segment are doing very well, and the primary reason is that these days parents want to give the best to their kids.”
At the same time, Santosh is cognisant of the ever-changing consumer behaviour and agrees that maintaining the position DOMS has created will be tougher. “In the past couple of years, we have invested heavily into product development and R&D. Even today; we don’t market ourselves too much and spend much on marketing. We are bringing in our new bunch of employees also in line with this philosophy. This is the only way we will be able to stay relevant in the future because we know it will be very tough as the market continues to grow. But our preparation to face any tough challenges is already in place.”
Up next are DOMS foray into hobby and fine art products, writing instruments, and an experiential cafe in Mumbai next year. From a brand that puts its product before anything else, the future sure looks brighter.