As with every business sector, those working in the gift industry have just one question regarding the recession: Is it over yet? And the answer, as it has been for most businesses, is: Maybe. "We had a few slow months," says Gregg Stewart, president of Sardine Can Giftware (formerly The Branch Company of Maine), "But business has been picking up lately. The first half of this year was slower than we'd like, and certainly was slower than in the past," remarks Scott Kaesar, publisher at calendar manufacturer, Tide-Mark. "Retailers are wary and very cautious about inventory, which makes perfect sense. But Christmas will come, and we believe that later this year, people will begin to feel more confident."
That optimism is further fuelled by the latest online survey published monthly by Long Island based market research company, The NPD Group, Inc. NPD found that its "Retail Response Indicator," which measures consumer expectations of shopping and spending, rose 4.5 points, from 39.5 points in April to 43.9 points in May, continuing an upward trend first seen from March to April. The Retail Response Indicator operates on a zero to 100 scale, with zero representing, "Reduce or Spend Less," and 100 representing, "Spend More."
"The continued increase suggests that stabilization is holding," says NPD Group chief industry analyst, Marshal Cohen. "We are seeing consumers move toward replacement and replenishment purchasing, and these are the kinds of purchases that would indicate we have taken the first step toward recovery. "It is also important to note," he adds, "that the longer stabilization holds, the more solid the foundation on which we can build a strong recovery." Still, 43.9 points is low on the scale, and data released by the National Retail Federation indicates that it's not time to start popping champagne corks just yet.
According to the NRF, retail industry sales for June (which exclude automobiles, gas stations and restaurants) decreased 3.8 percent unadjusted over last year, and decreased 0.2 percent seasonally, adjusted month to month. "Although several economic indicators are starting to show signs of improvement, it is going to take a few more months, maybe longer, for people to feel comfortable spending again," says Rosalind Wells, Chief Economist at NRF. "High unemployment and other uncertainties will continue to impact consumer spending through the remainder of this quarter."
So, in other words: Hang on. That's just what companies in the gifts industry have been doing. One & Only Figures produces custom made bobblehead likenesses and cake toppers for its customers, with wedding cake topper facsimiles of the bride and groom long being its best selling item. However, as owner, Wendy Lee points out, "People are of course still getting married, but fewer of them are ordering a $200 cake." As a result, she says, the company has experienced a slowdown in orders for wedding cake toppers, which generally are priced between $119 (single figure) and $238 (couples).
While by definition serving a niche market, One & Only is now concentrating more on its other lines, including graduation, occupation and sports-specific figures (all $99 each). "Overall, business has been pretty good, relatively speaking," Lee laughs. While noting that special sales and marketing offers are still being mulled, she says that any customers mentioning this Web Wholesaler article while ordering will receive a 20 percent discount on their order.
The calendar business has also remained fairly steady, according to Tide-Mark's Kaesar. "We've been making calendars for 30 years, so people know us," he says. "Fall is always the big time for the calendar business. As the year begins to run out, people start thinking of calendars as a great opportunity for gift giving. Some customers, typically women, even begin looking at them in the summer, as they start considering their holiday shopping needs." Still, he says, "Retailers have waited longer and longer to order, which can be a challenge when it comes to fulfilling all their inventory requirements in the fourth quarter. This year it looks like that will be even more pronounced than it has been in the past."
Tide-Mark manufactures any number of calendars, with topics ranging from sailing and landscapes to artists like Norman Rockwell and longtime underground cartoonist, R. Crumb. All its calendars are of the 12 month variety. Kaesar says he's yet to notice much interest in the seemingly growing trend for 18 month calendars. "Those really became a specialty with certain promotional efforts, or for academic year type uses," he says. "For now, we're happy with the 12 month calendars we sell."
The company also produces art prints, holiday and note cards, and a small selection of books, all of which are available for wholesalers; first-time customers receive an additional ten percent discount. Free delivery and/or additional discounts for quantity purchases can also be arranged, Kaesar says. Having recently revamped Tide-Mark's website, Kaesar says he's still looking to, "Improve and enhance it. We're trying to be very competitive, and the website is a part of that."
Haddix Distributing offers a variety of items aimed at gift shops, general retailers, flea market vendors, state parks, motels, amusement parks and most other retail establishments, as well as a large selection of customizable items for resale or for use as advertising specialties for other businesses. Located in Kentucky, Haddix carries a wide selection of horse related merchandise, including brass items, keychains, stuffed and plush animals, beanie babies, figurines and statues, canes, baseball caps, t-shirts and ashtrays.
The firm also offers a number of novelty items, ranging from lighters and puzzles to fake teeth and other pranks, in addition to caps, t-shirts, calendars, crystals, mugs and pens that can be customized with a person's or company's name. Jim Haddix says that business, "Has been okay over the past six to 12 months, but it's definitely picked up over the last two or three. That may be due to the economy."
An improving economy would certainly be welcome at Life Learning Devices, which recently launched. The company offers a wide variety of devices that, when its button is pressed, dispense a recorded aphorism or mantra. Designed to produce one such message per day, the LLDs hold up to 600 minutes of information, which ideally can be split into 365 unique daily messages, according to founder, Marty Lee Parker.
"This gives people the ability to take large chunks of information, chop it up, and distribute it, arguably, over the rest of their lives," Parker says. "Usually with a book, CD, DVD, or what have you, once you're done with it, even if you really enjoyed it, you put it up on a shelf somewhere and that's it. We take it back off the shelf and put it back into your life, whether it's at your breakfast table, your office, your bedside table, or wherever you prefer."
The concept began with a "Secrets of Life and Words of Wisdom" model, and has since been expanded to include "Daily Devotions," (Bible lessons) "Twelve Steps," (addiction recovery), "Ways to Be Green" (environmental tips), and others, priced at $29.95 each, or for orders of at least three LLDs, $19.95 each.
Recently, LLD has added a device featuring personal growth remarks by motivational speaker, Les Brown for $69.95, and will soon be offering LLDs to help listeners learn Chinese or Spanish. The possibilities, according to Parker, are endless. "There are 50 million golfers in the world." he says. "They all would like to learn more about golf's history and how to improve their game, and our Golf Tips and Trivia LLD is perfect for them." Two to three new models will be added each month, Parker says, with such themes as "Cancer Survivor," "Anger Management," "Football Facts," and even "Knock-Knock Jokes," on the drawing board.
"Our issue is marketing," he says. "We feel we have a terrific product; now we need to make people aware of it. But I truly believe that if you can add value to people's lives, you'll be successful." In a similar vein, LLD offers "Wallvations," tidbits of wisdom that can be repeatedly stuck onto walls, cups, even showers, and removed without damage. The phototexts are priced at $14.95 each. "We feel that what we offer not only makes for a gift that's fun," Parker says, "but that's also unique."
Such is also the case at Sardine Can Giftware, which as its name implies, produces a range of products packaged within sardine tins, complete with pull-top rings. The company's first product was its "LifePac Survival Kit," which contains more than two dozen first-aid, rescue and safety items, ranging from bandages and antibiotic ointments to fishing apparatus, sugar, salt and gum, all enclosed in a reclosable, waterproof, crushproof, pocket-sized sardine can. It remains the company's best seller, Stewart says: "There's always something in the news that makes survival kits important."
Sardine Can also offers "Romance in a Can," in G and PG rated versions, with contents including a four hour candle and matches, massage lotion and tips, moist towelettes and breath mints, as well as the "Quilter's Emergency Kit," with graph paper, a bobbin with thread, finger cot and emergency chocolate. The items are available to wholesalers in 12 packs, at $59 for one or $119 for two. Free shipping is included on all orders over $100.
The following were interviewed for this article:
Gregg Stewart, president
Sardine Can Giftware
17 Doughty Drive
Brewer, ME 04412
Jim Haddix, owner
709 Williamsburg Drive
Winchester, KY 40391
Toll Free: 800-544-4210
Scott Kaesar, publisher
P.O. Box 20
Windsor, CT 06095
Toll Free: 860-683-4499 ext. 100
Wendy Lee, owner
One & Only Figures
17360 Colima Rd. #772
Rowland Heights, CA 91748
Marty Lee Parker, founder
Life Learning Devices, LLC
9317 Brock Rd.
Plain City, OH 43064
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