Fall 2007
Inspired Sales By Emily Lambert

Geographically Speaking

Surely the Bible Belt is the hottest area of the country when it comes to inspirational products, right? Not necessarily. According to Packaged Facts, the United States is such a "predominantly religious country overall that no region in particular stands out in terms of numbers of adults that express a religious preference." Here's how some wholesalers and other industry experts weigh in:

"Three to five years ago, the literature would have said inspirational sales were highest in the Midwest or Southeast, the Bible Belt. Our figures go across the nation. That's the thing to focus on. The definition of inspiration has become much more broad," says Ingrid Liss, vice president of design for Midwest.

"The biggest area I have is the Mid-Atlantic," says Judy Orcutt, of QuilliGraphy, "but I stretch down into the South, New England and the Midwest. My biggest seller is in Boiling Springs, PA."

Pure Grace's strongest regions are the Mid-Atlantic, the Northwest and the Southeast.

Steele, of House of Windsor, in CO is always searching for new inspirational products. The bottom line, according to her: "People want things that have meaning." And that is true in all 50 states.

Moving Product

Judy Orcutt is used to seeing people deeply moved by her products. The owner of QuilliGraphy in York, PA, which wholesales inspirational note cards and framed art, Orcutt says there’s something about inspirational products that touches people. She says her products are intended to make people feel more serene and happier, especially in a world with a “lot of negative stuff” in it.

And therein lies the goal of inspirational gifts: to deliver uplifting, positive messages. These messages can be delivered through symbols—such as hearts, crosses and angels—or through products inscribed with single words or complete messages. Common words of inspiration include “believe,” “imagine,” “family” and “faith.” Mahatma Gandhi’s “Be the change that you want to see” is a good example of a complete inspirational message such a product may carry. No matter how the message is delivered, or what kind of product serves as its portal—a necklace, a paperweight or a garden statue, perhaps—the idea is to make the buyer and the gift-recipient feel good.

Michael Russo, president of the Gift Association of America, in Johnstown, PA, says sales of inspirational products were on the upswing even before Sept. 11, 2001, but that the tragic events of that day served to really send sales skyrocketing. According to a 2006 report, “The Religious Products Market in the U.S.,” conducted by Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, estimated retail sales of inspirational gifts and merchandise in the U.S. religious publishing and products market totaled $1.9 billion in 2005, an increase of 11.8 percent over the prior year. Growth is forecasted all the way through 2010, to $2.4 billion. These numbers apply only to inspirational products that are overtly religious in nature.

“Inspiration is huge,” says Beth Lang, owner of Alexa’s Angels, in Windsor, CO, which sells jewelry bearing inspirational words such as “hope,” “faith,” “believe” and “courage.”

“Inspiration is becoming mainstream, whereas it used to be predominantly in Christian bookstores. What’s apparent now is, it’s not a fad or a trend, it’s here to stay,” Lang says.

Sandy Comstock, creator of Toby and Max jewelry, says her jewelry has helped her discover the power of words. “I have found what the right words can mean, either to yourself or to people you care about,” says Comstock.

In the inspirational market, you will find two distinct types of messages: those with distinct religious overtones (such as Scripture from the Bible) and those with more general, philosophy-based messages. Natural Life, a wholesale company based in Jacksonville, FL, carries both types of products. Some have quotations from the Bible and other products have messages that say, “Life is good,” and similar messages.

The call of Christianity

Products with messages targeting a Christian audience appear to be gaining strength. Enesco, a wholesaler of giftware, home and decor products based in Itasca, IL, has recorded a nearly 20 percent increase in new Christian store account openings. Linda Walker, director of sales operations for Enesco, says some stores in the general gift marketplace are also trying to carve out a Christian section in their stores. “That’s fairly new,” she says.

Many wholesalers are also recognizing the growing audience for Christian inspirational products. Gund, based in Edison, NJ, has launched a new line of inspirational products with a Christian theme.

The Packaged Facts report cites Simmons Market Research Bureau, based in New York, as stating that more than 78 percent of American adults are Christians. While this percentage is a decrease from the number in 1998 (82 percent), it is still very significant. Combine this statistic with the reports on the evening news, and you get a clue why sales of these comforting products are on the rise. The news of the world is frightening, says Russo, and “when people are troubled, they turn to God. They look for spiritual guidance.”

Janice Callaway, co-owner of Pure Grace, a wholesaler in Salem, OR, has also noted increased demand for Christianity-based inspirational products. “Almost every retailer these days is saying, ‘I have a customer base I need to fill.’ They want a small category in their store,” Callaway says. Products from Pure Grace range from hand-sculpted, year-round ornaments (its most popular) to large centerpieces for the dining room table, all with a mission to “help the devoted Christian, and those seeking Him, express themselves without compromise for every occasion in their life.” Angels from Pure Grace are shown from the back, with their wings lifted up, to emphasize “praise, honor and adoration towards God for his handiwork,” says Callaway.

Packaged Facts reminds readers to pay attention to two additional segments of the population: America’s growing Hispanic population, which tends to be Catholic; and the aging baby boomers, who are exploring spirituality.

Reaching other religions?

It’s not just products with Christian themes that are doing well. Jill Fagin, owner of Jillery, in New York, a designer and wholesaler of housewares, jewelry and Judaica, among other things, is doing brisk business catering to Jewish people. Jillery’s products often contain inspirational messages written in Hebrew.

Retailers are advised to know their customers. “Traditional Judaica requires a specific knowledge. Many items have Hebrew writing, and the non-Jewish (or non-Hebrew-educated) will have difficulty translating the message,” says Russo.

In an attempt to keep her customer base broad, Orcutt makes her products more “God-related” than “Christ-related.”

“That way, Jewish people can relate as well,” she says. “There’s a lot of people that believe in God and not Christ.”

Moving away from religion

Pure Grace’s angels are inspirational products with a religious focus. Serenity Angels, part of the Seasons of Cannon Falls line from Midwest, of Cannon Falls, MN, a wholesaler of decorative gift and holiday items, are angels with a more general inspirational focus. “We define inspiration as something that has text, words of wisdom or quotes,” says Ingrid Lass, vice president of design for Midwest. “We take a less hardcore approach and go down the middle in keeping with what the market is doing. I think the opportunity and trend is broad inspiration that goes beyond religion. It’s an emotionally based expression of life feelings and markers in your life.”

Each wholesaler has its own definition of inspirational products. Some appeal to a strictly Christian market, while others seek to capture a broader audience. Keep in mind when shopping this market, the deeper you go into the denominations, the more you narrow your customer base.

The medium for the message

Angels are key in today’s inspirational market and come in many different forms. Some even smell good. Midwest’s After the Rain angels come with a vial of fragrance to add to their wings for “a calm environment.” Not to mention, there are four different colored wings—pink, blue, yellow and sage—that can be alternated. “This is a fun, new direction for us,” says Liss.

Enesco’s popular “angel” lines include “Heartwood Creek by Jim Shore” and Christmas Morning angels.

Quotables in New York, carries inspirational messages on a broad variety of products including candles, refrigerator magnets, mugs and address books. Linda Thiltgen, in St. Michael, MN, makes “art from the heart,” or rather paperweights, tiles and framed pieces with encouraging messages. “Some are my own and some are famous quotes. I like a lot of the Chinese proverbs,” she says. Popular messages include “let your spirit dance,” “joy” and “fly.” The messages are surrounded by feathers, stamps, leaves and other small items Thiltgen picks up wherever she goes.

In addition to a line of note cards, QuilliGraphy offers framed pieces decorated with pressed flowers and inspirational messages written in calligraphy.

Garden products are also big. “Angel” planters, mini rock fountains and garden angels that read, “Plant kindness and simplicity in the garden of your soul,” are some of the popular products from Midwest’s Garden Grace line. And with a slightly more religious bent, The Faith Collection, in Norman, OK, offers Scripture garden yard stakes and garden plaques that read, “The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord.”

Janis Gunter, owner of The Cannery, in Alpharetta, GA, says old hymns are “huge.” Hymns, distressed and aged, resembling a page right out of a hymnal, come framed and priced attractively (framed pieces retail for $21), from a local company called Designs With Scissors. Gunter says tunes that ring a chord with family members are especially popular, such as a daughter buying her mother’s favorite hymn. For the holidays, “Silent Night” is a hit.

Inspiration can also be worn. Alexa’s Angels’ most popular collection is entitled “Words To Live By,” with necklaces (some with pearl adornments) and bracelets (some with colored leather bands) that proclaim “strength,” “love,” “believe” and “imagine,” to name a few. “We don’t see that [category] slowing down,” says Lang, who sells pins and earrings as well. Jewelry is a great thing, she says, because initially it’s sought out as a gift, but customers often buy for themselves as well when they see how pretty it is. Jillery sells jewelry in the form of Judaica earrings, necklaces and charm bracelets.

If the simplicity of one word is selling well, Enesco’s newly introduced line, Silver Options, should be a hit, too. With Silver Options, symbols such as stars, hearts and crosses deliver the messages on their own. There are heart-and-cross charms on necklaces, heart-and-cross key chains, and frames with heart-and cross-imagery, as well as a bevy of items with star symbols.

And then there are companies that sell a little bit of it all, such as Amscan, in Elmsford, NY. Its inspirational products line is called Grasslands Road. Amscan’s inspirational items include mugs, paperweights, magnets, crosses on pedestals, key chains, plaques, angel figurines and angel birthstone pins.

Occasions for inspiration

There are many occasions for your customers to give inspirational gifts. Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa rank high, says Russo, as well as weddings and such Christian traditions as christening, First Communion, and Confirmation.

Mother’s Day is a big occasion for QuilliGraphy. Who can resist a print that reads, “In the childhood memories of every good cook, there’s a large kitchen, a warm stove, a simmering pot and a mom”? Thiltgen’s paperweights are often scooped up to give to co-workers relocating to another company, retiring or getting promoted.

Then there are life’s tragedies, during which inspirational gifts provide meaning and hope. Comfort and sympathy is Pure Grace’s strongest-selling gift category. Inspirational gifts enable their buyers to share encouragement in times of sickness or during bereavement, says Callaway.

QuilliGraphy produces four lines of cards suitable to give to cancer patients. The most popular carry messages like: “Cancer cannot cripple love,” and “Cancer cannot shatter hope.” Orcutt, the company’s owner, is a 10-year breast cancer survivor.

Inviting inspiration in

Because these products are message-driven, it helps to emphasize the message inside your store. “[The words are] what makes the sale,” says Lang. For this reason, with her first orders, Lang sends out cards with poems for retailers to display. A display card might read: “Sometimes it only takes a reminder to point us in the right direction. May these simple words become your compass for life.” Lang also suggests retailers hang giant graphics, with words such as “believe” and “faith,” from their stores’ ceilings. “We do it in our showrooms,” she says.

Russo suggests that displays be organized and “front-and-center” for major holidays and celebrations. “Like any other category, if the retailer cannot justify purchasing enough merchandise for the holiday or celebration, they should reconsider their decision to carry it at all,” he says.

On this same note, Thiltgen recommends that retailers carry a wide variety of messages, enough to generate interest and hit the need their customers are trying to fill. Thiltgen’s biggest account carries roughly 15 messages at all times.

While experts often recommend pulling like merchandise together to create a theme, some retailers prefer scattering inspirational items throughout the store. At House of Windsor, a coffee shop and general gift store in Windsor, CO, you’ll find Baby’s First Bible in the baby section, and inspirational journals on plate stands in the stationery section. “We’re not overly religious. We wanted to put it out there but not slap you in the face with it,” says owner Jan Steele.

Gunter, of The Cannery, plays in her store the CDs of hymns that she sells. This creates an environment conducive to buying products containing inspirational messages. Customers have told her they appreciate the atmosphere.

Inspirational gifts touch the gift recipient in ways that ordinary gifts cannot. All you need to do, as the retailer, is make sure the messages you carry are delivered loud and clear. Considering the many reasons people seek inspiration, you cannot go wrong with this category. If you don’t carry these products now, have faith and give them a try.

Emily Lambert

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

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