Facts about paper clips

by on August 30, 2011 at 7:28 am in Economics | Permalink

Now ACCO Brands Corp., based in this Chicago suburb and dubbing itself a “global powerhouse of leading office-products brands,” hopes Americans will embrace a snazzier clip costing more than 16 times as much.

“This is our reinvention of the paper clip,” says Carol Lucarelli, a brand manager at ACCO, as she hands a visitor a sheaf of paper held together by stainless steel clamps called Klix in shiny hues of red, purple, green, blue and “classic silver.” Klix, resembling small hair barrettes, make a snapping sound when closed. “It’s very fun,” says Ms. Lucarelli. “It’s this clickiness.”

It is claimed that traditional paper clips have been underperforming in the marketplace.

The eleven billion paper clips used each year in this country are made largely in the United States, perhaps because there are 100%+ tariffs on the import of paper clips from abroad.  Yet ACCO, the number one American clip maker, reports that paper clips account for less than one percent of their sales.  Some of ACCO’s 38 paper clip-making machines are more than fifty years old.  One rival company claims it does not understand how Americans use so many paper clips, namely 35 per American.

Some paper clips are used to unclog tubes of glue.

Plastic-covered clips are not covered by the tariff and they are manufactured largely in China.

The story is here and for the pointer I thank Brent Depperschmidt.

Steve Fritzinger August 30, 2011 at 7:51 am

I don’t remember the last time I used a paper clip to clip paper.

I have one stout paper clip, 1/2 straightened, that I use to pop open a finicky DVD drive.

Someone else must be getting my 35 every year.

Andrew' August 31, 2011 at 7:25 am

I’m not certain I’ve every used a paper clip to clip paper. One hangs above the computer for the reset button. I actually made my own annoying pinhole for the reset button that the toddler loved to hit and run. I’ve bent several into a Y-shape to use instead of a flathead screwdriver to open the doors the toddler likes to lock in the house, and if he gets hold of one he can’t stab himself in the heart and die like with a regular screwdriver. Glue un-gooing, fixing toys, etc.

ChefDad August 30, 2011 at 7:52 am

I tossed two out yesterday–one I straightened to clean play-doh out of my kids’ toys and the other I used to pick the lock on the bathroom door when my little one pushed the button on accident. Once you straighten them, they’re useless. Plus we seem to accumulate paper clips over time in various ways. We never seem to have to buy them.

Rahul August 30, 2011 at 10:23 am

There ought to be a market in pre-straightened paper clips. They seem more useful when straightened.

msgkings August 30, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Most households accumulate them in their various financial, legal, and medical dealings. You get a ton of them with all the documents the modern world requires. And most folks sensibly throw them in a drawer or cup rather than throw them out. The other acquisition method is of course, from work.

I’d wager over time as more documents go electronic the demand will go the way of buggy whips. Not that that’s a very trenchant insight.

dearieme August 30, 2011 at 7:52 am

“Thieves of paper” they are: I used to prefer Treasury Tags.

AndrewL August 30, 2011 at 7:57 am

It’s the versatility of the paperclip that makes it so popular as the article pointed out. You need one to hit those impossible reset switches on consumer electronics, they make great makeshift chains, you can hang ornaments from your acoustic ceiling tiles, you can scrap crud out of your keyboard, you can almost pick a lock with a paper clip, I’ve used one to scratch my name into the back of my calculator. These new paper clips will never take off, they are too mono-functional.

londenio August 30, 2011 at 8:09 am

So all those futuristic visions of the “paperless” office were bogus. We haven’t even reached the ‘paper-clip-less office” level.

How about stapling? I *never* use paper clips but I would be lost without my stapler. Stapling implies an irreversible commitment.

RR August 30, 2011 at 8:33 am

And I guess then staple-removers imply divorce.

Andrew Edwards August 30, 2011 at 8:17 am

I would love to see someone try to justify that tariff.

dan1111 August 30, 2011 at 8:24 am

It is risky for our national defense to depend on foreign countries for our holding-paper-together technology. Imagine if China had the ability to shut off our supply of paper clips at will. The world’s most powerful military would be crippled by the inability to execute orders of more than one page.

Matt August 30, 2011 at 10:50 am

Ew, manufacturing in America!? The unskilled rubes have jobs!? Someone must rectify this immediately!

Bernard Guerrero August 30, 2011 at 11:43 am

Ah, the Loser Support System…..

nelsonal August 30, 2011 at 8:26 am

When I started my current job I got a Clam Clipper, it’s like a tiny version of those black clasps but without the handles (you have to put them on with the device. They’re noticably different, and people have commented on them positively at presentations, but they’re nowhere nearly as versatile as paper clips for non-paper holding jobs.

affe August 30, 2011 at 10:26 am

“Clam Clipper” – that just sounds so… dirty.

Ken Rhodes August 30, 2011 at 8:48 am

As I read this item, there are nine comments ahead of mine. None of those nine has mentioned the obvious — the fact that something with some (albeit small) utility is manufactured in the USA and is almost free. Nowadays, that deserves a giant “Hooraaay, ACCO!”

And then ACCO decides it needs to amp up its profit by selling us something with [approximately] the same utility for sixteen times the price. That deserves a giant “Boooo, ACCO!”

Dhanson August 30, 2011 at 9:59 am

“Hooraaay, ACCO!” – You managed to manufacture a product in the USA while the government forces all your competitors outside the country to pay a 100% tariff on their product.

Ramagopal August 30, 2011 at 8:57 am

“One rival company claims it does not understand how Americans use so many paper clips, namely 35 per American.”

The guys in the “rival company” should read Free To Choose : the Friedmans use the ‘I, Pencil” story to drive home the point that sellers need not know why their goods are in demand and that is the beauty of the market system. Why waste time understanding what Americans do with 35 paperclips?

Ryan August 30, 2011 at 9:18 am

Understanding how they’re used could help market them better – though with a small market money-wise, that may not be worth the trouble.

Andrew' August 30, 2011 at 9:43 am

Right, focus on lobbying!

Dhanson August 30, 2011 at 10:07 am

The more interesting point from Free to Choose or I, Pencil is that even something as simple as a paperclip winds up being used in ways that were not foreseen and the market can be so opaque that it’s hard to even follow where parperclips go and what they are used for.

Central planners and people who think the market can be designed and directed should show a lot more humility when faced with the complexity of the real economy. People who think that the economy can be manipulated by mucking about with aggregate values should spend some time down in the trenches of production and supply chains and receivables to get an appreciation of how much complexity there is, how long the chains of dependency are, and how easy it is to throw a wrench into the works by distorting price signals or dictating how or where products must be used.

EDG reppin' LBC August 30, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Right on. Central planners would one day decide that Americans need slender steel picks to remove debris from their computer keyboards. They would then form an advisory committee. After 36 months of studying the market for slender steel picks, they would determine that slender steel picks are vital to American interests, and that Congress should authorize the “Steel Picks for Cleaning Keyboards and Renewal Act of 2014″. Then, there would be lobbying. After six more months, Congress would announce the creation of the Department of Steel Picks to oversee and administer the public/private partnerships created for manufacturing steel picks. 24 months later, the sites for administration, manufacturing, and distribution of steel picks will have been finalized. The administrative offices for the venture will of course be located in a newly constructed office complex in the Washington DC area, and staffed by some of the most expensive political appointees available. The government will spend $1.5 billion refurbishing an abandoned steel plant in Michigan. Though it’s not the best place to make steel, Michigan has really been beaten up recently, and could use a break. Plus, union shop! The steel is then shipped to the steel pick stamping facility in North Carolina (as a favor to the Senator for delivering that state in last year’s elections). Of course, the Representatives from Ohio, Missouri, Texas, Colorado, and California were helpful as well. They will be rewarded with brand new, state of the art distribution facilities in their districts; each one costing over $400 million and employing 50 of the best registered party members in the district. Because the venture is partly funded by taxpayers, it is important to carefully vet the retailers that want to carry the steel picks. Retailers must submit an application to the Department of Steel Picks, proving they are in compliance with Federal laws regarding wages, immigration, affirmative action, environmental protection, Homeland Security, health insurance, etc. If selected, retailers must maintain current records regarding compliance, and are subject to periodic inspections from a myriad of Federal agencies. Non-compliance could result in a revocation of the right to sell steel picks. In more extreme cases, it could result in fines, imprisonment, and seizure of both business and personal assets.
After all of this, the Central Planners are finally able to market slender steel picks to America. In the meantime, the rest of us just straightened out a paper clip, and cleaned our keyboard.

mulp August 31, 2011 at 12:57 am

If a paper clip maker knew more, it could increase sales without inventing a new “clip”, especially one that doesn’t serve the market.

As noted, a box of 500 paper clips should be marketed with every computer with CD/DVD drive.

Boxes of paper clips need to be larger, as my guess is a large number of paper clips follow the path from Staples to office supplies cabinet to new employee office to either the employee’s home or to the trash when the employee is downsized.

They could be marketed at dentists as plaque removal tools.

ACCO should sponsor paper airplane events, with rules requiring a paper clip.

They need to promote paper clips for kids crafts – making chains for all sorts of uses, say decorating trees, necklaces, with paper or yard adding color.

Do some engineering work for college instructors in mechanical engineering to promote lab experiments in testing tensile strength of chains; each student will end up buying a box.

A successful business creates needs where none exist and then successfully over supply the market. The riding crop makers didn’t preserve their market when horses were banned from NYC to make sure everyone pictured driving a car was holding a riding crop, and make sure riding crops were included as essential, say for getting the cattle off the roads. And with styling changes and marketing, riding crops would have become the symbol of a auto owner and driver.

frozeninthenorth August 30, 2011 at 8:58 am

Don’t know if Acco Brand is a “Global Powerhouse”, but I do know that it is mostly insolvent! TNW is negative, loss making. This looks like a better mousetrap — when no one is questioning the usefulness of the older model. I doubt I will (or my office) will pay 20 cents for a single paper clip.

Jim August 30, 2011 at 11:06 am

I’m guessing the Federal Government goes through a few billion per year.

The Paper, Ink, Staple, Paper Clip, Folder and Filing Cabinet Industries: Proud recipients of your tax money. Just as the founders intended.

Sturt August 30, 2011 at 12:21 pm

The fact that ordinary steel paperclips face a tariff of 100% (and are therefore manufactured in the United States) while plastic coated clips are

a) classified separately in the tariff code and
(relatedly) b) face a different tariff and therefore are manufactured overseas

tells you a lot about regulatory capture of customs authorities by protectionists and, also relatedly, the failure of protectionism.

Curious August 30, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I am always interested and often surprised to hear what products have import tariffs like this paperclip example. Is there some comprehensive list of all tariffs imposed on imported products?

If the tariff on paperclips were suddenly done away with, would we expect to quickly see U.S. paperclip manufacturers put out of business by overseas manufacturers? I am not so sure. I am guessing that U.S. manufacturers, even with 50 year old machines, are producing them about as low in price as is probably possible. If overseas manufacturing of paperclips would really lower the price of paperclips by some very substantial amount, wouldn’t we expect to already see them in the marketplace despite the current tariff? I could easily be missing something important here though.

Sbard August 30, 2011 at 6:57 pm

They’d have to produce them for half the cost or less in order to be competitive.

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