Planners Are About the Future, Not the Past

By Paul Conley, Content Marketing Director, The NPD Group

I’ve been using a Franklin Planner for more than 25 years. Much of my adult life is recorded in the paper pages of that calendar system, which is designed to push users to organize their time by focusing on their personal values.

I don’t know if I’ve become more moral, more focused, or more organized over those years. But if I have fallen short in any of those areas, the Franklin isn’t the problem. The Franklin Planner, based loosely on the planning system used by Benjamin Franklin, is about as close to perfect as a planner can be.

It’s also old.

And out of fashion.

Here at The NPD Group, where hundreds of people work, there’s only one other guy I know who uses a Franklin. That guy, and let’s call him Hugh Lookoldtoo, is not a young man. Like me, Hugh is at the tail end of the Boomer generation. We’re not kids, and we’re forever doing those sorts of things that signal our advancing years:  grunting when we get out of chairs, squinting at the whiteboard, talking incessantly about heart-healthy diets, and starting meetings by opening our Franklin Planners.

But if you assume the younger folks at the office roll their eyes at the Franklin and turn to their smart phones, you’re wrong. Our office is filled with young adults using paper planners. But their planners are nothing like the ones that Hugh and I use.

The young people’s planners are brighter and more colorful. They often have a positively juvenile feel about them -- sporting superhero logos or videogame characters or flowers or abstract forms. Their planners are seemingly meant to evoke something about the user, rather than the planner. Personalization is the norm.

There is, however, a group of people who do roll their eyes at both the Franklin and its more youthful competitors. These people, who seem to eschew paper planning all together, are neither old nor young. They are middle-aged, although not entirely comfortable with that idea yet. They are Gen X. And they are the generation that came of age replacing everything old with new digital versions.

They are the folks, in other words, who entered the workforce in the 1990s and early 2000s and used the now all-but-forgotten Palm Pilots.

And they seem to have played a pivotal role in the disappearance of old-style planners and the rise of the new styles.

Assistants and companions
Palm Pilots were wonderful devices. I owned one back in the day, too. But even during the PDA heyday, I kept using my Franklin. Why? Because Palm Pilots were utilitarian. They were efficient. They were convenient.

They were, in other words, the opposite of a Franklin or any other paper planner. Paper planning is meant to be slow, thoughtful. Using a paper planner is akin to keeping a journal. It requires time apart. It insists upon reflection. A PDA like the Palm Pilot was a personal digital assistant. A paper planner is more like a companion. And companions are seeing a resurgence.

Online sales of appointment books and planners jumped 49 percent in dollar terms in the 52 weeks ending January 2, compared to the prior year. At brick-and-mortar stores, sales of books and planners also rose, but only by roughly 7 percent.

And growing even faster than planners themselves are items related to the personalization of planners: the so-called “organizer accessories.”

Dollar sales of those items in brick-and-mortar stores jumped a remarkable 64 percent in the 52 weeks ending January 2 over prior year. Online sales of those same items rose by about 42 percent in dollar terms.

Much of this growth comes from newer, smaller, and/or more youth-focused players in the space.

Dollar sales of my beloved Franklin Planners fell more than 15 percent at brick-and-mortar in the same period, and they dipped slightly more than 7 percent online. Those declines are part of a larger trend for the Franklin. Dollar sales at brick-and-mortar last year were down more than 25 percent from two years earlier. Dollar sales are flat online from two years earlier.

Unit sales online have fallen more than 7 percent in the past two years. At brick-and-mortar stores, unit sales have plummeted 36 percent from two years earlier.

It’s a similar story for another of the classic old-school brands. Unit sales of Rolodex fell more than 60 percent in at brick-and-mortar stores in the year ending January 2.

One notable exception among the older brands is Moleskine. The classic luxury maker of planners and notebooks loved by Picasso and Hemingway has seemingly broken the Millennial code of authenticity, artisan skills, and an appreciation for a distant past they don’t remember. The brand markets itself through a “philosophy” of “culture, travel, memory, imagination, and personal identity.”

Moleskine unit sales at brick-and-mortar stores have skyrocketed 98 percent in the year ending January 2 and more than doubled online!

In fact, that story – old-school brand reinvents itself as a youth-focused maker of colorful, personalized paper companions – is being replicated across the industry. Consider the story of Carolina Pad. The company once made those black-and-white marble composition books. Today they specialize in adorable and colorful items for teens. And with some distribution deals with big-box retailers in hand, dollar sales of the company’s planners rose more than 988 percent in 2015 at brick-and-mortar.

Or consider Blue Sky, maker of pretty, colorful, upbeat planners “thoughtfully designed in sunny southern California.” Dollar and unit sales of Blue Sky products more than doubled online in the year ending
January 2.

It’s hard to argue with success like that. But it’s also hard to change, as Hugh and I can attest. So he and I will keep using our old-school planners. And our Gen X coworkers will keep to their smart-phone calendars, while the Millennials among us, and the companies that understand them, will move on without us and revamp the category.

Paul Conley is the director of content marketing for The NPD Group. When he finished writing this article, he checked it off as “done” in his Franklin Planner.

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