Winter 2013
Sails to Sales By Sharon Naylor

As the sea continues to exert its influence on a wider variety of giftware, the category is making a splash by differentiating into discrete nautical and coastal trends.

There’s something about the ocean that calms, soothes, and inspires. So it is no wonder that the ocean inspires strong lines of coastal and nautical gift and décor items.

Ocean-inspired gift items deliver an emotional resonance, which is why they’re in demand. Gift items inspired by the ocean are increasingly falling into two diverse categories: coastal and nautical, both of which have grown far past the product lines of decades past. Items are stylish, chic, and upscale.

“The difference between nautical and coastal designs is all in the subject matter and color palettes,” says design expert Ceci Johnson of Ceci New York, a creative design studio. “While they both are associated with the sea, they have two very different meanings. Nautical is associated with seamen, navigation and ships, in primary colors such as red and navy blue. Coastal relates to natural items that come from the sea, such as sea shells, starfish, and sea glass in colors seen at the shoreline and in sunsets – sand colors, bright turquoise blue, orange.”

Nautical sails

When it comes to nautical, “think boats and sailing, anchors and stripe motifs with navy and red as the dominant color palette,” says Johnson.

Trip Wolfskehl, creative director of decorative tile company Screencraft Tileworks in Providence, RI, says that trends include nautical charts and maps as top gift items, since “nothing quite represents a place better than a map of that place. Charts are also an important piece of nostalgia for those who grew up on the water.” Maritime signal flags are especially strong, since – Wohlfskehl says – they’re personalized to an area. “That’s been a big hit.” Maritime signal flags represent each letter of the alphabet, allowing customers to personalize their purchases and gifts in a unique way, and there is a big draw to items made from authentic sailcloth as opposed to cottons or polyesters.

J. Chad Beasley, national sales manager of Caffco International in Montgomery, Alabama, says that his company adopted more nautical products recently, including their Porthole style lantern and square lantern, items that summon the feel of a seaman’s lifestyle, an evolution of the stereotypical lighthouse image into a more stylish décor item that’s very in now, for both indoor and outdoor décor.

Coastal craze

The coastal trend encompasses sea creatures such as starfish and turtles, as well as items that customers will pick up on beaches – seashells, sea glass, sand dollars, and driftwood. Johnson’s previously mentioned color palette of sandy neutrals, turquoise blues, sea glass greens and sunset-over-the-ocean oranges are especially iconic for this category.

Adrienne Boyer, executive vice president of Stone Mountain, Georgia-based Mud Pie, also says it’s about the colors in coastal. “Sea life is portrayed in a wide array of colors, such as blues and greens related to shades of water,” says Boyer, mentioning this trend for her company’s terracotta based ceramics, which is a milk glaze with terracotta peeking through.

Driftwood pieces are also a staple of the coastal trend. Beasley at Caffco points to their line of picture frames, featuring wood slats evoking a boardwalk feel, but modernized with a blue-green color. Another natural material item spiking in popularity for coastal is hand-woven rattan grass, in basket and trivet form at Caffco, and there’s an international flair to coastal with the company’s Mediterranean-themed Majorca frames and wall hangings.

Boyer says that motifs are expanding, pointing to the rising popularity of sand dollars, sea horses and shells of all types being popular, mixed with their ceramic and glass items. Wohlfskehl says that octopuses are hot, as are mermaids and various fish. “We’re all about celebrating the location of our retailer, so we like to feature sea creatures you’ll find in their area,” he says.

Gerri Hyman, owner of My Island in Greenville, South Carolina, agrees with the octopus as a top trend, and adds in jellyfish as well. “I think their free forms appeal to customers looking for something unique in bright, fun colors.” Hyman says that sea turtles are also top motifs on their products.

Room for overlap

Overlap does happen. Given the new trend of rich shades in coastal items, you’ll find navy blue or red products with shell or starfish motifs, or sea glass-colored items bearing nautical graphics such as anchors on personal stationery, greeting cards, bottle stoppers and décor items. A blend of one category’s images with the other’s color palette comprises the category fusion.

Category drivers

What factors keep retailers lapping up sales in the category?


Customers across all demographics are entertaining more, and opting for serveware for casual entertaining. Platters and serving bowls sport sealife motifs, such as Caffco’s Dana Wittmann collection of whimsical, brightly colored serving bowls with pelicans, crabs, shrimp, or oysters. Caffco’s top product types include hand-painted ceramic platters, dishes, trivets, spoon rests, salad servers and more in coastal motifs.

As more entertaining menus include shrimp, scallops, and other seafood dishes, the dishes themselves support the theme. Mud Pie’s glazed colorful or neutral ceramic platters and bowls also display the trend for sea-inspired serveware, as do their cheese knives and spreaders with fun sealife motifs, small entertaining items that suit lower price point gifts.

Add in coastal-themed guest hand towels and linens, as well as bottle stoppers, wine charms and other entertaining items, to tap into your customers’ desire for impressive entertaining.


Boyer says that her customers shop for coastal and nautical items for the expected reasons, such as recalling vacation memories and decorating shore homes, but that there is also “what we call aspirational giftware. Those that want the lake or ocean house, and aspire to have that,” shop for these themed accoutrements.


Coastal items in particular don’t have to be natural, soft colors. An unexpected vivid shade for a clamshell graphic item allows for a wow factor in a décor or gift item. Wolfskehl says that blue shells are especially hot, and mermaids drawn with ornate detail are perennial winners. Hyman concurs: “For us, shells are rarely white, as My Island designs are not too realistic. Our shells are chartreuse, turquoise, orange. I also use a lot of royal blues and purples, which convey a nautical style, but are a little more vibrant.” Look to My Island’s new Village Collection for bright and whimsical fish, shell, mermaid and other sea creature designs on pillows, framed art, acrylics, tea towels, canvas mats and greeting cards.

Fashionista finds

Anne Zimmer, president of Sailor Bags in Victor, New York –situated in between Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes region – says that in coastal areas especially, but also as a general fashion trend, people like to dress in nautical style. “Boat owners are wealthy, and like to dress in the classic, upscale fashions of blue and white, or red and white, showing off their status with their clothing and accessories.” Sailor Bags are gift-shop gold: totes, duffels, shoulder bags, cooler bags, backpacks and lunch totes made from custom-woven sailcloth.

The simple, tailored bags with classic nautical colors and design elements—and customized embroidery option—make for strong personal and gift buys.

In addition to totes and bags, nautical jewelry and accessories such as scarves with anchor motifs, wallets in classic navy and white stripes, appeal to those with aspirational or upscale tastes. Apparel such as T-shirts and robes with nautical designs, are also strong. Zimmer says that blue and white outsells red and white as the nautical look standard, “perhaps since blue is associated with water.”

Another sector of nautical wear is men’s accessories. James Ashton, co-founder of New York City-based Sailor Made says that “Men feel safe wearing bracelets, and they’re spending more on accessories than they have in the past.” The company’s line of nautical bracelets is made with authentic metals “used to string flags and attach sails, the same pieces used for 100 years in the British Navy. Men love that these pieces have a story.” Brass jewelry pieces include original material from boats, and are made in the USA. Leather bands for Sailor Made bracelets are in classic colors, and Ashton says that in leathers, orange is the big color right now.

“Nautical and coastal [gifts] are and will always be perennial strong sellers,” says Wolfskehl, “because the ocean is nature’s last frontier. It’s where we can truly be in awe of the raw power of nature. The sea is always changing into something you don’t expect. We like to bring a piece of this energy back with us into our home, because the sea is also incredibly calming.”

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Sharon Naylor

Naylor is the author of 30 wedding books, including Your Special Wedding Vows and Your Special Wedding

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