Take a Trip to Souvenir Sales
By Shane Dale
If you don’t have at least one T-shirt from a favorite destination, a shot glass from your 10th anniversary trip to the Bahamas, a stuffed version of a favorite animal from the zoo, or some other memento of a good time, you’re an anomaly. Here’s how to break into the lucrative souvenir market.
According to Hoover’s, a business information and analysis source, the U.S. gift, novelty and souvenir industry alone includes about 30,000 stores with a combined annual revenue of $17 billion. And others are hopping on the souvenir bandwagon. In Florida, for example, brothers Jeffrey and David Shiffman are selling an unusual souvenir: bottled Oil Spill Water. It’s not actual Gulf water, but a “simulation”, they say, of the spill using real oil and ocean water. And it sells for $9.99 a pop for a two-ounce bottle on www.oilspillwater.com.
Before you go thinking it’s totally in bad taste, take heart in knowing the duo is taking on such an endeavor to help, not hurt, clean-up efforts in the Gulf. Specifically, $5 from each bottle covers costs and the rest goes to Reef Relief, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and The International Bird Research Center. The point is, people buy mementoes and novelties to commemorate all sorts of occasions (some you would never even think of).
Here’s how five distributors have successfully entered the world of souvenir-selling.
Bethany Brevard learned on the fly just how much effort goes into a large souvenir order. “We’ve discovered that we had to order a lot more samples than we ordered before for a client like this,” says Brevard, owner of Proforma Professional Business Solutions (asi/300094) in Austin, TX.
The client in question is Bayou Bend, an upscale, boutique-type museum in Houston that used to be the home of Ima Hogg, an art collector and philanthropist who was nicknamed The First Lady of Texas. The museum is a plantation-like attraction that includes a number of fine arts, porcelain pottery and French paintings – and just recently, a gift shop.
When considering which items would stock the museum’s gift shop, Brevard had to take into consideration two very different types of visitors. “It’s going to be high-society women of Houston, so we need to appeal to those women, but there are also going to be school field trips, so we have to have little things that kids will buy,” she says.
Brevard presented more than 40 promotional item ideas to the museum’s owners. Together, they ultimately settled on a dozen items, including wearables geared toward the high-society ladies and functional items for the kids. “We’re doing three different types of tote bags, full-color men’s T-shirts, Bella junior-cut women’s T-shirts, custom snow globes, mugs, magnets, chocolate bars, pencils, visors, note cubes, garden kneelers and umbrellas,” she says.
Since most of Bayou Bend’s adult visitors have discriminating tastes, Brevard says the graphics on each of these items had to look especially sharp. “Before we buy anything from the supplier, we know exactly what it’s going to look like,” she says. “It has to be super-snazzy so people will buy it.”
The order isn’t quite complete, but Brevard estimates that it will total between $15,000 and $20,000 – not a bad start for her first venture into the souvenir realm.
A Squishy Situation
When it comes to souvenirs, Michael Emoff, CEO of Shumsky (asi/326300), says end-users tend to keep shirts and other wearables the longest, “due to the functionality and the statement that the imprint makes. It may match a political view or support a team. It’s relative to the purchaser’s preferences and likes.”
Emoff says Shumsky has found a good niche in being the merchandise vendor at local events, such as the annual Dayton Air Show, in which attendees like to commemorate their time at the show by buying wearable souvenirs. “Our marketing to the event coordinators includes presenting them with an opportunity to realize additional revenue as a royalty for allowing the distributor – us, in this case – to be the official vendor for the event,” he says.
Besides wearables, though, anything that can be considered a collectible is also popular. “7-Eleven, for one, sold professional team profile cups. People saved those for the nostalgic value, but it’s also a collectible and they see it as an investment. They’re similar to concert shirts; you see them all over eBay,” Emoff says.
One of his most successful souvenir items definitely falls within the collectible category. Shumsky produced a custom, patent-pending, “squishy-face” bobblehead of the women’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. (Go to www.wubbadubba.com for more information on these bobbleheads.) “They were trying to increase their season-ticket sales for women’s basketball,” he says. “They did a program where they gave away the coach’s bobblehead to any season-ticket order.” The promotion was so popular that Kentucky eventually began to give some away at concession stands, too. About 4,000 bobbleheads were sold for the promotion.
A Plush Account
One tricky thing about the souvenir industry, according to Gregg Emmer, is that there is often far less variety among souvenirs than promotional products in general. “Theme parks and attractions end up with the same items, and only the logo is different,” says the vice president and chief marketing officer for Kaeser & Blair Inc. (asi/238600).
These types of establishments tend to offer their customers basic generic items that everyone can use, such as water bottles, tote bags, coffee mugs and pocket mirrors. However, Emmer points out that museums do offer more creative things, such as puzzles that include images related to the museum, or miniature reproductions of objects that are displayed in the museum – “items that fit the overall personality of the venue,” he says.
But for venues that aren’t quite as creative with their souvenirs, Emmer says a trick of the trade for distributors is to determine the single biggest appealing aspect of the establishment, and run with it. Take, for example, a client of his: a zoo in the Midwest that’s known primarily for its white tigers. “Most zoos are known for a specific special area. Producing the signature plush is a great place to start,” he says, noting that a plush white tiger was sold by a competing distributor and had become a mainstay at the gift shop.
But, Emmer says his company had the opportunity to acquire the order following a personal introduction by a zoo administrator to the manager of the gift shop. He and a Kaeser & Blair dealer won the order by helping the manager appreciate the creative side of souvenirs, he says. “They were already selling a plush tiger, but we knew we had the potential for a better-quality, custom-made tiger to look more like the actual zoo tigers – rather than the generic stock tiger they were selling – at a similar price,” he says.
Most importantly, Kaeser & Blair’s plush tiger met all safety and labeling requirements that have quickly become the number-one selling point for many children’s items. “In the past, it might have been profitable to handle importation, but today we look for established partners producing toys for the U.S. market every day, or industry vendors with similar expertise,” he says.
Emmer did a total of 5,000 plush tigers for the zoo. “That specific order did not repeat, but other similar plush items did,” he says. “This order was for their holiday promotion and sale.”
That sales success led to additional orders of the non-plush variety with the zoo, as well. “They used kids’ binoculars as a premium item, and the binoculars had to be picked up in the gift shop upon a zoo visit,” Emmer says. “The zoo got to incent the renewal and guarantee a visit to the gift shop. That one was all my idea.”
A Milestone Remembered
Gerry Barker, president of Barker Specialty Co. Inc. (asi/132690), says the growth in the variety of T-shirts, hats and other wearables over the last 25 years has drastically changed the souvenir marketplace. “While we still sell items like bumper stickers, window decals, keyrings, coffee mugs, etc. in many sites, the use of apparel has come to dominate the souvenir industry,” he says. “However, this does open the door to creative applications of interesting products. Many souvenir shops are looking for indigenous products that are native to the area.”
Barker notes that distributors must also be sure that the souvenir items they select for their clients can be resold at a profit. “Many promotional product manufacturers take the view that corporate gift-buyers are willing to pay a premium price, but this won’t work in the souvenir business,” he says. “It is important to try to deal with manufacturers that understand the nature of the souvenir business, and produce quality products at competitive pricing with reasonable minimums.”
This is especially important when the client has little-to-no money in its budget, such as with a current campaign in Connecticut called CT 375. “This is an organization created by the governor of Connecticut to promote the state’s 375th anniversary, but as there is no funding – it is not a government association – they’re looking for private providers,” Barker says. “The goal is to increase tourism and awareness of the historical event.”
When the state interviewed different Connecticut-based companies to provide souvenir items and create a website for the campaign, it selected Barker Specialty due to its creativity and capacity to fill orders quickly.
Barker says the website that his company created for the promotion demonstrates the “increasing sophistication” of the souvenir business. “In this case, the CT 375 committee wanted to create official souvenirs to be sold at various tourist attractions, as well as online,” he says. “They came to us to suggest the items, inventory the items, create an online site and market to various attractions.”
Barker Specialty provided logoed tees, ceramic mugs, hats, note cards, coaster sets and posters for the website and in-person locations. Some items include the CT 375 logo, while others contain an image of Mark Patnode’s Charter Oak painting, a popular Connecticut-related image. “The website is brandnew. We’re ordering sufficient inventory to cover our expected needs,” Barker says. “We expect thousands of orders and have worked with our suppliers to be able to get orders replenished quickly.”
In just the first 48 hours that the website (www.ct375.com) was up and running, 50 posters, 24 mugs and 10 hats were ordered.
Diners Dish-Up Collectibles
Terry McGuire, senior vice president of marketing for Halo/Lee Wayne (asi/356000), says the distributor sells promotional products as souvenirs to museums, gift shops, college and professional sports teams, and many businesses that people wouldn’t often associate with souvenir sales.
“Whether the client is a towing company or a restaurant, they order promotional products to sell at a substantial margin, which also allows them to use the same products as giveaways with a predetermined value,” McGuire says. “For instance, if a restaurant sells embroidered caps that we sell to them for $3.79, and they’re listed in their gift shop for $9.95, when they use those hats in giveaway promotions, the recipient believes they’re getting a $9.95 value for free.”
McGuire notes that since most promotional products are used as employee incentives, client appreciation gifts and brand builders that are normally handed out for free, souvenir selling can be a challenge for many in the promotional product industry because they don’t feel comfortable enough to recommend an appropriate list price, mark up or even quantity. “The key is to recommend to your client to start small on the quantity of the product they order, and start higher in terms of the price,” he says.
“The client can always reduce the price if the item is slow-moving and still come out ahead,” McGuire says. “And, if the item is a fast mover, they can keep the list price the same but order in higher quantities, which typically results in a lower cost and higher profit on each item sold.”
One of McGuire’s clients, a large regional diner chain in central Illinois, successfully employed that strategy “to fine-tune the products they purchased from us for use as souvenirs, while creating a successful profit center at each location by selling their branded souvenirs,” he says. “Their account executive started by offering souvenir staples – coffee mugs, pens, caps and apparel.”
McGuire says Halo/Lee Wayne annually sells the diner chain about 1,200 mugs, 650 T-shirts and 400 polos in three different designs. The client buys smaller quantities of pencils from Bentcil (asi/39850), Mule Clubber yard sticks from Gold Bond (asi/57653) and Rocking Chair keytags from Mocap (asi/71870).
McGuire has been able to throw in some much more creative items, as well. “The client eventually also purchased unique items like engraved wooden spoons and a custom recipe book that fit with their country theme,” he says. s
Shane Dale is a freelance writer based in AZ.
Souvenir Buyers Offer Their Take
Kami Marquardt, marketing communications manager at Great Lakes Brewing Company, manages souvenir purchasing for the brewery’s onsite and online gift shops. “From a retail perspective, we do everything from T-shirts to men’s and women’s V-necks, crewnecks, vests, windshirts, pint glasses and any kind of specialty glassware,” she says. “We have different kinds of hats, sweatbands and some giveaway stuff like postcards, bottle openers and keychains. We even have mouse pads and Post-It notepads.”
Marquardt says she’s even started to buy infant items, such as onesies, sweatshirts and baby blankets – though she knows better than to promote beer on the kids’ stuff. “We do our main corporate logo, and we have another tag that touches on our sustainability efforts, called Brewing a World of Good,” she says.
Indeed, demonstrating an environmental heart has become more important in today’s souvenir sales. “What we’ve dabbled in is purchasing sustainable products made of bamboo, organic cotton and recycled cotton,” Marquardt says.
The tricky part for Marquardt is that the definition of “green” is always shifting. “I would say a year or two ago, we were really into that and pushing that, but then you hear something negative about bamboo,” she says. “That’s why we haven’t changed everything over to eco-friendly products, because of that inconsistency.”
In terms of demonstrating that the brewery has a social conscience, the next best thing to eco-friendly apparel is buying items that are made in America. As Marquardt says, “If we can’t get it green, we try to get it local or domestic, at least, to promote keeping jobs here in the U.S.”
Pat Irelan, general manager of Jungle Jim’s, Delaware’s largest water park, sells souvenirs to a different demographic: young parents and their 5- to 12-year-old kids. “We have T-shirts, beach towels, souvenir plastic cups with 3-D images of the park, hats, sun visors, keychains, postcards and plastic totes,” he says. “We also have a plastic misting fan – you can turn the electric fan on in the water and spray yourself down a little bit.”
As far as kids’ T-shirts, a jungle print that includes a lot of animals is popular. Irelan says the parents like to buy tees that remind them of where they were and when they were there. “I think they’re interested in seeing the name of the town and state that they’re in on the apparel,” he says. “We’re at Rehoboth Beach. It’s a pretty popular destination. We can incorporate our name and the town name. I think that makes it pretty attractive to our guests.”
One of Jungle Jim’s most popular items is its heavy, high-end beach towel that costs $29 each. “We call it a 20-pound towel,” Irelan says, adding that the weight of the towel increases its perceived value.