Fall 2008
From Smiles to Sales By Emily Lambert

Why humor is a hit

Humor sells. Arguably nobody knows this better than retailer Rosanne Brown whose store, Venice Stationers, caters to a retirement community in Venice, FL. Brown finds a little light-heartedness always works. Case in point is one of the many products in her store that capitalize on humor: a book “1,000 Unforgettable Senior Moments: Of Which We Could Remember Only 246” by New York-based Workman Publishing Company, Inc.

During tough times, your customers seek out products with a touch of whimsy or ones that are downright funny—gifts that lighten moods and deliver smiles. Across the board, both retailers and vendors are finding that humor does indeed sell. “People like to laugh and feel like children again. They love to be delighted,” says Paolo Crevedi, managing director for wholesaler Alessi, in New York City.

Not only does humor break up the monotony of the every day, it provides a coping tool in times of stress, such as home foreclosures, says John Kinde, humor specialist in Las Vegas, NV. Kinde is a keynote speaker and consultant for humor in the workplace. There’s a saying, he says, if you can laugh at something, you can control it, but if you can’t, it controls you.

imageAlthough there are no formal numbers to go by, Barbara Miller, spokesperson for the Greeting Card Association in Washington D.C., says she has definitely seen an increase in the number of humorous cards in the past year. “Especially humorous takes on everyday situations that we live through,” she points out.

Word play

Artist Jill Seale in Charlotte, NC, spends her day playing with words. She knows how to take them, twist them and produce a smile. Seale licenses her artwork to roughly 20 different manufacturers. “Of all the things that I do, people flock to me for the humor,” she says.

Humor comes in many different forms in the gift retail world. There are tea towels that say, “At our age, bridge is the only way we’ll get to four clubs in one night,” and Post-It notes with a picture of a screw and the words “Screw this.” Seale’s most popular line, “Nun for the Road,” depicts a series of nuns holding drinks, such as Sister Mary Merlot and Sister Mary Margarita. “Word wit” is what Seale calls this brand of humor, and she gets numerous requests for it. Seale also creates whimsy, which she describes as “more lighthearted, more of an illustrative approach,” seen in her line of flamingos that are painted anything but pink.

Humor’s hues

image“Whimsical is light and playful. Wit is a little bit sharp. We like to be both,” says Megan Carey, managing editor for Knock Knock, wholesaler of humorous paper products in Venice, CA, such as stationery and books. At Knock Knock, retailers will find products such as Post-Its that say “Kudos On Your” at the top and a list of items to check off at the bottom, “test results, superiority, witty retort, outfit, sobriety, hot bod.”

And then there’s just plain old fun, which is the word Cindy Henry uses to describe Wellspring’s line of Bendinis and Chameleons, miniature magnet people and chameleons, with bendable arms and legs to hold car keys, cell phones and the like, on refrigerators. Henry is the executive vice-president of wholesaler Wellspring in Lancaster, PA.

Humor at Avanti Press, manufacturer of cards, calendars and gift books in Detroit, MI, is often about dealing with everyday situations. For instance, a best-selling card features a cat in a distressed yoga position with a grumpy expression. The card reads: “I meditate. I do yoga. I chant . . . and I still want to smack someone!” Another example: A bulldog in curlers with a dour expression, sitting in front of a bowl of cereal and cup of coffee and the words, “Can you call in grumpy to work?” Avanti puts animals, children and older people in humorous situations that are as natural as possible, says Michael Quackenbush, creative director. “There’s a believability factor. It’s important you believe that could be real,” he says.

What works?

Know your demographic

imageThe ways to use humor are numerous, from overtly hysterical to subtle and clever. Sometimes, however, the form humor takes can be offensive. Some types of humor can cross the line. Where exactly is this line? That depends upon the retailer and their clientele. Thus, as a general rule, John Kinde, humor specialist in Las Vegas, NV, suggests retailers play it safe. “Once you put the product on the shelf, you have little control over it,” he says. “When in doubt, leave it out.”

“You have to have a certain sensitivity on the pulse of the audience. For my audience, I tend to keep it a little bit safe. I have customers anywhere from young people starting out to 85-year-old ladies. There are different tops for different audiences,” says Seale.

“We talk about it a lot,” says Avanti’s Quackenbush, referring to where the line for humor is or should be. “We don’t do fart jokes. We take it to a point of being suggestive. We want to be tasteful, not overt,” he says. An example of this—humor that touches on a serious subject in a smart and playful way—is found on a card featuring a picture of a cat driving away in a milk truck, with the tag line, “Drink Responsibly.”

And then there are other companies who aren’t afraid to cross the line once in a while. Carey at Knock Knock says the company keeps the line in mind but doesn’t hesitate to cross it occasionally. At Knock Knock, retailers have the option of choosing racy or tame messages based on their customer demographics. They can choose multiple-choice pads, with a header that reads, “Things You Must Do To Make Me Happy,” or they can go one step further with, “Things You Do That Really Piss Me Off,” or “Why I Must Have Sex With You.”

Fosters Urban Homeware, a 10,000-square-foot all-purpose houseware store in Philadelphia, PA, knows their customers quite well, and carries an assortment of humorous products to appeal to them. The store’s buyer and co-owner, Ken Foster, says the store targets their hipster drinking crowd with Cool Shooters (a shot-glass mold) and their 20-something crowd with Beer Bands, silicone rings with different themes. Both products are from wholesaler Fred & Friends.

imageBrown at Venice Stationers says her customers are very much into entertaining, and humorous products that work for entertaining (such as cocktail napkins) do particularly well in her store. “Because we’re a retirement community and we have a lot of socially active people, a key sale for us is people entertaining and being entertained,” Brown says.

Women as target audience?

With a focus on (among many other topics) shopping or menopause, many of Jill Seale’s themes seem like ones that would appeal more to women.

Do women buy these humor products in greater numbers? A few wholesalers do target women especially those between the ages of 30-55. But overall, wholesalers and retailers say there is no trend that reflects a marked tilt toward more women buying these products.

Fun marries function

At Fred & Friends, wholesaler of fun and functional products in Cumberland, RI, humor is secondary, function is first, says spokesperson Joe Edmundson. “Everything we do here is functional, and then we infuse a sense of humor or quirkiness,” he says adding that the functionality aspect of the company’s products separates them from being merely gag gifts. Retailers can find floor mats that read “I Am Not Your Doormat” and ABC Cookie Cutters (ABC stands for Already Been Chewed) with gingerbread men missing a head, leg or arm. “[Humor] gives added value to the product,” says Edmundson.

imageFred & Friends sells to both gift stores and houseware stores. “Sixteen of our top 20 products are food and beverage related, like our frozen smiles [an ice cube tray in the shape of dentures],” says Edmundson.

“As long as it works and serves a function, people respond to the humor,” says Foster of Philadelphia’s Fosters Urban Homeware. The store carries many Fred & Friends products. In addition to a Fred & Friends doormat that reads “You are Here,” office products such as Toasted Notes (a piece of toast, if you will, with a writing pad of “butter” that sits on top) and Drip Clips (paper clips shaped like drops of water that cling to a magnetic faucet) sell well. Office gifts are especially popular due to their downtown location, says Foster.

Italian design firm Alessi, puts the fun in functional as well, with products like Banana Boys wine stoppers, consisting of three monkeys communicating the message, “Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Humorous products that sell well are immediately understood and functional, says Paolo Crevedi, managing director in New York City.

Wellspring also wholesales functional and humorous magnetic pads, perforated halfway down. For example, one pad reads “What I Want” at the top, and past the perforation, “What I Can Afford,” and another reads, “My Great Ideas” and “His So-So Ideas.”

Whimsical wins

imageThe playful touch on funny that whimsical products lend has made them very popular offerings as well. And the variety is truly great. There are the popular monkey offerings from wholesalers Franz and Midwest. The Romero Brittero line from wholesaler Giftcraft is another example of whimsical products. Whimsical lines offer products for pet lovers (as in the ones from Julia E. Sokol Studio in Philadelphia, PA), and for children. A newly introduced line called the Twinklets is a series of whimsical characters that children can collect and play with. The characters in the series come in a wide variety of products including figurines, charm bracelets, mobile charms and pins. The Twinklets are a product of Cranston, RI-based Amazar Americas—a holding company that belongs to the Swarovski Group.

Selling laughter

When selling products that are purely fun, or fun and functional, an atmosphere that parallels your products is important. Kinde refers to this as uniformity of efforts. “A store that is selling humor ought to have a sales staff that is enjoying their job and having fun,” he says. “The atmosphere absolutely needs to be a place where people like to come and shop and have fun,” agrees Henry of Wellspring.

“In our biggest season, the store will be screaming out loud laughing. It’s contagious. Nobody needs what we have. You have to add that other element. It really is recreation,” says Brown.

In addition to encouraging a jovial atmosphere in your store, you need the right price on your products, which according to many in the humor industry is an impulse price. Foster sets the retail price for humorous products between $10-$15, or less. Customers want to know in six months to a year they can throw the product out without having wasted a lot of money, he says. Seale agrees, adding that humor tends to change over time so the price has to be low enough to encourage sales.

Whether you cross-merchandise your products or create a humor corner, carry whimsical items, or ones that come right out and say it, if you can get a laugh or a smile, you can often get a sale.

“Humor is a way of looking at things. It’s a perspective,” says Kinde. And, “the better the relationship with the customers, the more you know what will make them laugh.” So, go ahead, give it a try. There’s nothing like a little fun—with a lot of pay-off.

Emily Lambert

Lambert, a regular writer for GIFT SHOP, resides in Philadelphia. She can be reached at emilylambert@comcast.net.

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