Hot Opportunities: Here are five hot markets that should be on every distributors’ radar

These five up-and-coming sectors are ripe for promotional products sales.

When identifying a good sector to target, ad specialty distributors tend to look for a clear set of characteristics. It should show growth in number of companies and jobs. It should reflect increased marketing efforts by firms in the industry. And, it should be stable enough to withstand economic twists and turns.

Today’s top markets for distributors, such as the education, health-care and financial industries, all present these kinds of opportunities for sales. But what sectors are the up-and-comers? Which relatively new markets that are a little off the beaten path show promise for distributors hoping to acquire new revenue streams?

We talked to experts and researched market sectors that are seeing some of their most explosive growth ever.

Read on to find out about five new markets that offer big sales opportunities for promotional product distributors.

Home Health Services

Like many in the home health-care business, Jeff Salter started his company many years ago, in 1991, in anticipation of the “gray tsunami,” as some have dubbed the impending wave of aging baby boomers. That wave may only just be starting, but Salter and others can tell you that accompanying health-care services are already exploding.

“Last year our company saw about 24% growth,” says Salter, “but our Phoenix market saw 50% growth.”

That kind of growth is typical for today’s home health companies, many of which haven’t even seen an onslaught of baby boomers yet. Rather than major medical care, many of today’s home health agencies are offering “companion care,” everything from helping clients get out of bed and take baths to playing cards with elderly patients who spend long days alone. And, this is a job market that is growing exponentially. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the U.S. will add 707,000 home health-care jobs between 2010 and 2020, an increase of 69%.

As more Americans live longer (today’s average life expectancy is 78, according to the Centers for Disease Control), more and more people are looking for daily living assistance. But instead of opting into a retirement home as in years past, they’re choosing to stay put and receive help in their own homes when they can. Indeed, though people are living longer, they don’t always need extensive health-care services in major health-care facilities. That said, many do need support with daily tasks, such as cooking and cleaning – something family members may be willing to pay companies to take care of for them.

Eric Little has seen the shift firsthand. Little is the senior vice president of franchise development for Omaha-based Right At Home, an in-home care and services company. “There’s a strong preference for ... comfortable surroundings in one’s own home,” Little says. “And home health care can be more affordable.”

Nursing homes can run upward of $75,000 a year, while many home health-care services cost about $20 an hour. Starting in 2008, Little says, his company started to see substantial growth. That’s boosted sales dramatically – to $200 million in 2011 from $172 million in 2010 – and increased the company’s need to market its services to a widening customer base.

Also, the fact that most home health services are paid for out of pocket means companies in this space aren’t bogged down with insurance hurdles and reimbursement issues.

For many, in-home health-care ad specialties can be tricky, since there are limitations on the gifts doctors can accept. According to Salter, pens and notepads – items that see repeated use – are ideal for his company, which seeks to remain top of mind with medical professionals who offer referrals.

Real Estate

While the real estate sector became an obviously difficult market to target in recent years, distributors are finding that it is now enjoying a revival, at least certain aspects of it. Indeed, home prices have begun to increase again, housing starts are at pre-recession heights, and in general, the sector is clearly rebounding – and those in the market are increasing their marketing efforts as a result.

Since the real estate business mostly consists of in-person transactions, promotional products can play a major role in companies’ marketing strategies. In fact, premiums serve a wide purpose in the industry, says Brenton Hayden, CEO and founder of Minnetonka, MN-based Renters Warehouse. In this business “you need to seduce everyone you meet,” Hayden says, referring to branding measures and the importance ad specialties play. To do that, “we put our brand on everything we can get our hands on. We don’t really give out pens and papers and traditional stuff – we do innovative things.”

Recently the company gave out 1,000 lighters – in four different colors with the Renters Warehouse logo on them – to potential tenants at various property showings. And, when the company hired Minnesota’s number-one radio host to promote the company, Hayden offered the host a book and a bag of promotional items.

Those marketing efforts are paying off by keeping Hayden’s firm top of mind among property owners in a market segment that’s booming, he says. For three years Renters Warehouse has been the “fastest-growing property management company in America,” Hayden says of the firm that was started in 2007.

“If you’re thinking about renting a house, you think of yourself or a real estate agent. Neither of them is cut out to do this,” he insists, referring to the often difficult task of finding tenants and managing their rental agreements. Apparently many property owners agree, as they’ve helped Hayden’s company see triple-digit growth year-over-year since it started. Sales growth has risen by an average of 100% or higher every year, and as high as 400% two years ago.

These days the company is riding that wave of success and increasing its efforts in the marketplace by dedicating 22% of annual revenues to marketing and advertising, including promotional products, and is even dropping $60,000 on a Super Bowl ad for its local Minnesota market.

And they’re smart to do that, since the marketplace is expanding and becoming ever more competitive, their niche in particular. Even though residential sales are still slow in many areas, property management is “the second-fastest-growing industry behind cloud computing,” Hayden says. “We’re in the business of rental property where everyone’s a client, whether they’re 80 or 18. It’s a good time for us.”

Alternative Energy

The energy industry seems to be startup central, and a host of newbies are bringing their newest technology and energy-saving proposals to the table. In 2012, Astrum Solar, a solar energy provider to homes and small businesses, was number two on Inc. magazine’s list of fastest-growing companies, with annual growth of more than 23,000%.

Other renewable energies, like wind, are getting a boost from Congress, which, in January, extended production tax credits as part of its fiscal cliff bill. That’s a big boost to an already burgeoning field, says Jimmy Haley, vice president and managing director with Gemini Energy Services, a San Diego-based employment services firm that supplies staffing for wind projects. Just Gemini’s market sector alone – the operation and management of labor on wind projects, which are limited to the country’s windier places, such as Texas, California and the Midwest – was a $3 billion industry in 2012, Haley says. That’s expected to double by 2025, he adds.

That makes it a high-growth field and one ripe for ad specialty targeting, say alternative energy market experts. Along with trade shows and client development, Haley says there are unique opportunities to build rapport with customers in his industry. When a client mentioned he’d gotten into wine making, Haley sent him 50 customized wine labels for his first batch, with the name Windy Wine and a silhouette of a wind turbine on them.

“I just FedExed it over to him and he was floored,” Haley says. “It drove home the relationship.”

Similarly, solar energy, which cost upward of $5 per unit five or six years ago, has dropped to less than $1 today, says Dan Biddell, executive vice president of marketing & strategic development for Principal Solar Inc., a solar utility aggregator based in Dallas. The greatest reason for the solar market’s explosive growth and a reason the industry will continue to grow is that it has “come down radically in cost,” Biddell says.

And that’s likely to continue, since the cost of solar is largely in the installation of panels. Solar energy itself is a pittance. The industry may be particularly attractive to distributors, as new growth is largely among mom-and-pop companies performing solar panel installations in houses and warehouses.

Online Education

Online education has grown so popular that The New York Times dubbed 2012 the year of the MOOC (massive open online courses). Now that Harvard, Stanford and a host of additional Ivy League schools are getting into the online craze, the trend is gaining more traction than ever. The latest annual survey by the Babson Research Group, which has spent a decade tracking online learning, reports that 6.7 million students are taking classes online.

And it’s not just college educators who are marketing their services to a growing customer base for online students. Companies like, which just received more than $100 million in venture capital, are offering online software training for today’s workforce. And while MOOCs may be some of the most popular, because they are free, many of the country’s top universities are increasingly collaborating to either increase revenue streams through online courses or offering free courses as a way to attract future students.

At 2U, a Landover, MD-based online learning company partnering with major universities to provide higher education, “a huge growth area” exists among course offerings and universities looking at the online space, says Chance Patterson, the company’s senior vice president of communications. Duke, Vanderbilt, Northwestern University and others are teaming up with 2U to offer undergraduate courses online, a deviation from the graduate programs the company has been offering in the past four years.

“There is just huge growth right now,” Patterson says.

Ray Schroeder agrees. And while MOOCs, which have only been around for little more than a year, are difficult to gauge in popularity, traditional online learning in general, which really started in 1992, “is growing at 9% annually while all of higher ed was flat” over the past year, says Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois in Springfield, Illinois.

That said, the interest in MOOCs and free online learning is helping to boost interest overall in Web-based education. What’s more, the rapidly rising cost of degree programs along with the ease of learning online and a resistance to relocate for a degree program are not only inspiring people today to seek courses online, but will likely push online learning for years to come, Schroeder and others predict.

Employment Firms

It may seem odd that temporary staffing firms are on the rise given the lack of jobs many Americans are facing today, but that’s exactly the reason the industry is seeing an uptick. Companies unable to hold onto full-time employees are pulling in much-needed help on a part-time, temporary basis with greater frequency.

Michelle Benjamin, CEO and founder of Benjamin Enterprises, a labor and talent management firm in New York, has been in business since 1985. But a confluence of factors – recent corporate layoffs and an emergence of technology in the manufacturing sector, in which her company specializes – has boosted her business in ways she hasn’t seen before.

Besides creating new software to help clients find the best talent possible, Benjamin says the company relies heavily on annual trade shows in which promotional products play a major role in building brand awareness. Calendars, notepads and private-label water bottles have been giveaway staples at her company’s trade show booth, Benjamin says.

“We try to give out anything that can move our brand forward,” she says.

That means bags are big too, as well as pens, which Benjamin says are probably her company’s biggest marketing tools. But “quality is very important” in the writing instruments the company selects, she adds. “We want it to be a sustainable pen so that after a few clicks it’s not going to fall apart.”