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S.W.A.G. and Other Freebies for Trade Shows

February 7, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

S. W. A. G. “Stuff We All Get”

If the dry cleaner didn’t give you a 2010 calendar, but you’ve amassed a collection of logoed, reusable shopping bags and your HR department gave away hand sanitizers, you have general idea of what happened to the $20 billion-a-year swag business.

Rows and rows of exhibitors were hawking future freebies in a setting where you’d expect Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s character in NBC’s The Office, to come around the corner.

Don’t say tchotchkes around this group. “The word has a negative meaning, standing for something without value,” said Joe Haley, managing editor of the Advertising Specialty Institute’s Counselor magazine.

Celebrity and fashion events made bags of expensive swag stylish and, on The Office, Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton manager made swag cool with the show’s sizable audience.

“I basically decorated my condo for free with all of my swag,” Scott said in the third season after returning from the Office Supply Convention in Philadelphia.

There’s a whole line of Dunder Mifflin swag, but the pros at the Dallas show sell the real stuff.

“No one is expecting a year as bad as last year,” said Bob Teese, vice president of Hotline Products, a St. Paul, Minn.-based maker of promotional calendars, one of the industry’s stalwart products. “Attitudes have been more upbeat the last couple of months.”

Last year is expected to be the first year that sales have fallen since 2002. The third quarter marked the fifth consecutive quarterly decline in sales, and early full-year tallies show they’ll be off by as much as $2 billion from $19.8 billion in 2008, according to the industry’s trade organization.

“Business was off, but companies were still buying the green products,” said Edward Hanson, co-owner of Richardson-based shopping bag manufacturer Metropak.

Wearable products ready for corporate logos are the industry’s biggest category. Performance fabrics with UV protection or anti-microbial qualities are gaining on fleece. Neon colors and trucker hats – the ones with foam fronts and mesh backs – are back.

Umbrellas, golf balls, lanyards, thumb drives encased in any shape imaginable, coolers, message pads, bags, drink bottles, flying discs and solar-powered battery rechargers are among products ready to make a company statement.

Wide price ranges

Swag comes in all prices. Personalized pencils cost 13 cents each, and reusable bags are 90 cents apiece. For those extra-special bank customers or this month’s best salesman, there’s a $69.99 solar-powered PDA charger or a $200 digital picture frame that can store 4,000 photos.

After scoring last year with half-ounce hand sanitizers, Harry Fotopoulos, national sales manager for Colorado-based Leashables by Oralabs, said the flu-inspired product still does well, especially with advertisers at sporting events and places with families. It’s not as strong “now that people have been vaccinated,” he said.

Some of the biggest customers of promotional products were among the worst casualties of the economic downturn: financial services companies, car dealers and small businesses. At the same time, pharmaceutical companies and health care providers are under stricter gift rules, both self-imposed and some due to new state laws.

“We used to think we were more recession-resistant because this is advertising on items that people use and companies like to give out,” said Scott Fuhr, a spokesman for the industry trade group.

More than 3,300 distributors attended the show, which ended Wednesday, down about 250 from last year. About 500 suppliers showed off their goods, down from 523 last year.

Lasting memories

According to an Advertising Specialty Institute survey in 2008, 84 percent of people remember the advertiser on a product they receive and one in four said they are more likely to do business with that company.

Bags made from polypropylene or recyclable materials have remained strong sellers for the last three or four years, said Metropak’s Hanson. “But while that part of the business was good, it also attracted more new competitors.”

Businesses are “counting the pennies,” he said.

“Last year, everyone put the kibosh on all buying. It started to pick up in November and December, and January was busy,” said Dan Townes, president of Shepenco, one of the industry’s oldest pencil and pen suppliers. The Shelbyville, Tenn., company was founded during the Great Depression in 1933 by Townes’ grandfather, who was fired by another pencil company to make room for the boss’ son.

Pens and pencils have remained top sellers. “It stays around for a long time, and it’s an inexpensive cost per exposure,” Townes said.

His sales declined more than 20 percent last year. The company invested in new machines that allow more complicated graphics. It expanded its green products, including pencils made from recycled newspapers and a pen that’s made of biodegradable plastic.

“We’re ready for the business to turn,” he said.

Another family-run business, Gill Studios Inc., also started in 1930s with founder Forest Gill’s invention of the bumper sticker.

Every two years, it has its own form of government stimulus.

“Nonpresidential years are even bigger for us,” said sales manager Michael Malinowski. The company’s factory in Lenexa, Kan., also makes yard signs and lapel stickers.

“This year, there are 37 governors up for re-election and 573 statewide and above races,” he said, without checking notes. “That’s a lot of opportunity.”

By Maria Halkias | The Dallas Morning News
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