Summer 2013
The Power of Positivity By Heather Johnson Durocher

Inspirational products work for every stage in life – whether celebrations or trying times. Perennially popular, see what’s new in this thriving category.

In today’s fast-paced world, as we’re “connected” to others 24/7 thanks to smartphones and social media, taking time to pause, reflect and reach out to those closest to us can feel more essential than ever.

After all, it’s personal relationship-building, involving authentic interaction, that keep us happiest, says Caity Olenowski, whose Denville, NJ shop, Surprises in Store, specializes in uplifting and engaging products.

CharmedDesign2-copy-copyFrom mugs and magnets, to jewelry, wall hangings, notecards, figurines, ornaments and other giftware, inspirational products strengthen connections among family members and friends, Olenowski says. “As a gift shop in a tight-knit community, we love being there for all of our customers’ occasions—some are happy occasions like a graduation, and other times we’ve had customers break down crying when they see a beautiful quote on a sign that reminds them of a loved one who has passed,” she says. “I’ve had customers with friends just diagnosed with cancer who need a ‘stay strong, we’re thinking of you’ reminder.” What’s more, in uncertain economic times, these kinds of gifts serve as reminders that everything will indeed be okay, that going through challenges is a part of life and good things can be the end result.

It’s these kinds of messages that Nora Monaco, owner of AngelStar in Morgan Hill, CA, says is at the heart of what her company is all about. Monaco started AngelStar, a manufacturer of thousands of different inspirational products, as a retail operation in 1991. “I’m trying to help people feel a little more positive, to heal some part of their heart in some small way,” she says. “Our target is to touch people’s lives, and we take it seriously.”

As Americans have endured what’s been called the Great Recession, companies like AngelStar that are creating and selling inspirational products have experienced increased sales. “There’s a downturn, but we’re growing. We’re actually doing well,” Monaco says, adding that shoppers turn to inspirational products in times of tragedy, such as the Boston Marathon bombings.

“When Boston happened, within two hours we had people calling,” she says of customers seeking to buy AngelStar’s popular “worry stones” that are often placed in people’s pockets for good luck or peace of mind. “We’re mostly an angel company, and everybody needs inspiration. Especially when there are situations in the world.” While most of AngelStar’s customers are women—a trend seen across the board within the inspirational gift category, according to industry experts—there are some male-oriented gifts.

One of AngelStar’s newest products: NFL cheering stones, which Monaco says follows the company’s mission “to encourage and inspire.” These stones retail for $7.99.

Faith-based inspiration

ComfyCozy5-copySome inspirational products may include a more spiritual or religion-based focus. P. Graham Dunn is behind American-made and Amish-inspired products for customers “who appreciate art and also want to display their faith through the art,” says Anthony Burdette, marketing manager at the Dalton, OH company whose core demographic is Christian, conservative, family-oriented, female, primarily Midwest/southwest region.

Customers especially like P. Graham Dunn’s board-mounted prints—scenic imagery of trees, animals and coastal scenes. These are printed to include inspirational sentiments and/or scripture. Wall Words are wood-carved wall accents in the form of words including phrases such as ‘faith,’ ‘family,’ and ‘amazing grace.’ The ‘Amazing Grace’ wall accent is 15.5-inches by 24-inches and retails for $25. The company’s Puzzle Pieces set features carved and painted puzzle pieces that easily snap together and include photo frames, inspirational sayings, scriptures and quotes.

Enesco, Itasca, IL-based manufacturer of inspirational gifts, has several best-selling items in this product category, says Dianne Bradley, director of communications and sales training. “We like to think of ourselves as a cradle-to-the-grave company, being able to offer things to people at the happiest times of their life and also at the end of life,” Bradley says. For example, Enesco’s Bereavement Angel—a 9-inch high figurine that retails for $33.95—carries an inspirational message about loved ones looking over us and is often used at memorial services, she says.

CrosbyandTaylor2-copyOn the other end of the life spectrum, baby gifts such as porcelain items that can be inscribed with the child’s name, birthdate and ‘Jesus Loves Me’ are popular for baptisms. Nativity sets and also Enesco’s nativity ornaments, are also big sellers. The nativity figurines are especially well received, Bradley says, in part because of their gentle, delicately detailed faces. “It’ a very serene-looking image. It’s all done in resin, made to look like linen,” she says. “This year we came out with a holy family, and people were touched by that. You see them—Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus—dressed in their biblical clothing.”

The holy family of figurines retail for $25-$30, she says, adding that while the Bible Belt certainly is where many of Enesco’s customers are, such items aren’t entirely exclusive to this area or even Christian gift shops. “It’s gone more mainstream,” Bradley says.

Monaco, of AngelStar, believes most gift shops carry inspirational gifts of some kind, whether faith-based in nature or not. Interestingly, she says, she’s found customers tend to not care too much about products being “overly religious.”

There’s always going to be a few people who don’t like these gifts, she says, “but you can’t please everybody. With angels, there have been surveys where 80 percent of people, whether religious or not, believe in angels. That’s amazing.” Still, Olenowski says her store sticks mainly with universal inspirational gifts. “We’ll do something that says ‘faith’ but we don’t like to get too much into [religion] because we have such a diverse customer base,” she says.

Making connections

GoghJewelryDesign4-copy-copyMarci Struzinski, creator of Children of the Inner Light gift products, believes her calendars, greeting cards, note cards, mugs and other items speak to people’s hearts. “I’ve been told they are inspirational and give them the words to tell people how they feel,” she says. “I was responding to a need.”

Her greeting card line is offered through Blue Mountain Arts, and she says sales continue to climb. She credits the unique look of her hand-drawn characters. “The characters have a look that’s disarming,” says Struzinski, who also writes thoughts for each card. “People are touched in a very special way in their heart when they read the writing,” she says. She recently wrote an inspirational book featuring her hand-drawn characters. “The book can be understood by school-age children who in today’s world are under a lot of pressure and need coping skills,” she says. “But the most buyers are adults who need encouragement and inspiration for every life situations—work, illness, relationships, loss.” Children of the Inner Light also creates necklaces and bracelets and pillows.

Trish Church Podlasek, director of marketing communications & design for DEMDACO, describes the Leawood, KS company’s creations as artist-driven home decor and gift products. “The core focus of DEMDACO is to provide products that lift the spirit by inspiring an emotional connection of warmth, or remembrance, and sometimes laughter, products that tell and create a story,” Church Podlasek says. Surrounded by love, by Willow Tree, is a favorite from this line, she says. Its sentiment is “Abundant love surrounds you.” Another top-selling line: Kelly Rae Roberts Collection, by DEMDACO Studio. A popular piece in this line is the “Trust the Journey”
tote bag.

IsabelleGrace2-copyJoni Abdalla, owner of Fishers, IN-based Wee Believers with husband Steve, is proud of the four-year-old company’s line of inspirational and educational toys. The couple, who have five children, “saw a need for toys with a greater meaning.”

“It’s not that our toys are preachy,” Abdalla says, “While they’re playing, they’re actually learning goodness, virtue, how to be a good friend, how to be a loving child…they inspire kids to be really good without them really know it.” Parents, meanwhile, “are just so relieved,” she says. “They thank us every time. They are really grateful because it gives them an opportunity to converse with their children on a deeper level.”

Toys include items such as Joseph’s Tool Apron, a canvas apron that has front pockets, all labeled by picture, for specific tools. Also, the apron features a poem about the importance and benefit of hard work.

Satisfying sales

PreciousMoments-copyOlenowski, of Surprises in Store, enjoys knowing she’s playing a part in boosting customers’ moods and outlook on life. “We’ve had several ladies come in with daughters in middle and high school that love the uplifting gifts to give their daughters and granddaughters who are going through a tough time,” she says. “Having a piece of jewelry or small token reminds them they are beautiful inside and out.”

Gift shops choosing to carry inspirational products indeed experience personal gratification too, says AngelStar’s Monaco. “They want to feel like they’re also making a difference in their lives and the lives of their customers. It’s really about inspiration, about touching people in a meaningful way,” she says. “That’s something that is intangible. It makes a difference.”

Heather Johnson Durocher

Durocher is a northern Michigan-based journalist who writes frequently about business for newspapers and magazines. She has contributed to USA Weekend, Woman's Day, Parents and American Baby. Visit her website at

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