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Fall 2001 What’s New in Novelties

Remember the novelties of your youth? Those back-of-the-comic-book, dime- (or dollar-) store gags and goodies—Groucho glasses, trolls, pet rocks, the goofy and the gross—that everyone knows and loves (or hates). They’re still around, as silly or crude as ever. But today they’re joined by an array of items spawned by modern everyday realities like computers, traffic jams, and even body art.

As a category, novelties have grown up and even garnered a certain cachet. And they’re more diverse than ever. Theme- and holiday-related merchandise—Halloween, Christmas, or “Over the Hill” birthday, for example—are ubiquitous. And many have become “standards” precisely because those events recur on a regular basis. And so the gag gift you give a pal for the big 4-0 might may be one of the newer classics or something entirely, well, novel. But there’s a wealth of unthemed, “no special occasion” novelties, too (singing fish, anyone?). Sometimes the novelty is the occasion.

Why we love them

The category is a hit with a wider consumer market than ever, suggesting a certain universal appeal. In general, young kids and teens love novelties, and have always been a prime market for them. But so do adults, not least of whom are baby boomers who remember the classics with nostalgic fondness (and delight at spotting old fads or favorites at a flea market). From tweens to college kids to graying co-workers, consumers make novelties an estimated $30 billion industry.

But why? If novelties by definition are “useless trinkets,” what accounts for their ongoing popularity? Sure, they can break the ice, or set a tone or theme, or just get a laugh. But at the heart of novelties is that they send a message, says Dennis Hall, PhD, professor of English at the University of Louisville and co-editor of the forthcoming book, Handbook of Popular Culture. Novelties are actually “a medium of communication that carry meaning between the [novelty's] giver and the receiver,” or its owner and invited observer, he says. The success of the item’s humor depends on the closeness of the people involved. If they know each other well or share experiences that make them “insiders,” such as schoolmates, co-workers or family members, the novelty can work. “Outsiders won’t get the gag,” Hall says, but when they do work, it’s because of that “shared something.” And buyers—who obviously want the joke to work—instinctively know that.

Are people buying significantly more novelty items than ever? Yes and no. They’re buying more novelties, and at the same time they’re buying fewer travel-specific souvenirs. In effect, those two categories are blending. “The numbers [for novelty sales] are increasing because there’s no longer a definitive souvenir industry,” says Larry White, associate publisher of the trade magazine Souvenirs, Gifts & Novelties. Instead of, or in addition to, buying souvenir items that say “Florida” or “New York,” for example, tourists are buying non-specific gifts to bring home. “So it’s really opened up,” says White.

Astute retailers are taking advantage, helped by the fact that many novelties sell well from carts and kiosks. And manufacturers—many of them the original creators of novelty oldies but goodies—are supplying the demand.

Bad manners, good fun

imageFor the past six years, Billy-Bob Teeth, Inc., the original manufacturer of novelty teeth, has been producing what they call their “nasty and scraggly” mouthpieces, not just for Halloween but year-round. Their more than 20 designs are crafted of acrylic and held in place with putty. The “Jethro” style makes wearers look like they’ve seen a few too many bar brawls; the “Caveman” is equally startling. Also available are options such as braces, gold crowns, diamond studs, and sets that glow in the dark. Portable and affordable, the teeth can go anywhere, anytime. “People have a lot of fun with them,” says Lori Mortland, the company’s director of advertising. “They’re a great ice-breaker on a first date,” she says. (Really?) “Actually, we have all sorts of useless uses for them.” Up next are two new models: “official” Nutty Professor teeth, modeled after the original Jerry Lewis character; and Austin Powers teeth, débuting when the third movie is released. Billy-Bob Teeth has also tapped into the lucrative baby and toddler market with its Billy-Bob Pacifier line. With their toned-down scary smiles, the pacifiers are “selling like hotcakes,” Mortland says.

In addition to the “dental” items, Billy-Bob Teeth offers an array of “hillbilly” accessory items: corncob pipes, baseball caps sprouting Jed Clampett-style hair, and more. And then there’s the Billy-Bob Bicep car-door decal, designed to fool motorists into thinking an “Ah-nuld” is in the car. “We decided Billy-Bob Biceps are the ultimate way to eliminate road rage,” Mortland says with a laugh.

That theme apparently resonates with consumers, who are racing toward the new “road rage” merchandise. Compass Marketing recently introduced the Road Angel and her devilish counterpart, Road Rages. Billed as an “inspirational auto companion,” this blue angel perches on the dashboard to keep a watchful eye. At the touch of a button, she admonishes agitated drivers with one of several one-liners. (“Keep your temper. No one else wants it.”) The devil, a cute little monster with troll-like hair and an attitude, has a repertoire that consists of assorted insults. (“You drive like an old lady.”) Of course, people aren’t buying them to communicate with the driver who just cut them off—they’re for the amusement of the dolls’ owners and their passengers, says Hall. Apparently, the gag is working: “They’re both bestsellers right now,” says Cal Sternberg, Compass Marketing’s founder. Priding themselves on manufacturing “nothing that anyone else makes,” and “nothing that’s practical,” Compass Marketing’s other spirited lines include beer steins; exploding golf balls; “The Stinker,” a take on Rodin’s “The Thinker” sculpture perched on the john; and “our new forks and spoons, which extend 25 inches for stealing food from other people’s plates,” not a hit with Miss Manners, perhaps, but also a bestseller for Compass Marketing.

The next big thing isn’t about people, however, but pets. Sternberg—whose company invented the now-standard reindeer-antler headband 19 years ago—says the number-one subcategory for the coming year will be novelties for pets. “Pet paraphernalia is an incredibly fast-growing market. Actually, it’s probably the fastest,” he says. “For us, pet-related sales have increased 300 percent since last year.” In addition to their perennially popular antlers, Compass offers more than 80 outfits for dogs, cats and even ferrets, and rawhide chews in numerous shapes like cigars and ice cream cones. Also selling very well are no-spill, inflatable water bowls; creative pet houses and whimsical crates; and fish tanks outfitted as kitchens, living rooms and libraries complete with non-toxic “furniture.” Sternberg says his company loves to market pet novelties: “We never get letters from discontented pets.”

Novel experience

Some novelties are more interactive than others, and Spin Master Toys creates interactive fun for kids of all ages. Air Hogs, which the company started making in 1998, are vehicles fueled by air pressure. And their E-Charger Airplanes can travel the length of a football field on a single 15-second charge. Spin Master’s newest must-have novelties are for the younger set. Big with boys are Flick Trix finger toys, die-cast, full-action miniatures of extreme sports equipment like BMX bikes and snowboards. Girls gravitate toward Key Charm Cuties wallets and purses that open to display dolls in dance-studio scenes. “After having been pigeon-holed as a manufacturer of ‘boys’ goods, this year we’re challenging ourselves to really wow everybody,” says company spokesman Harold Chizick.

Spin Master launched two products this past August: the revamped, no-oven-required Shrinky Dinks (Remember? That ’70s sheet of plastic you colored, cut, baked in the toaster oven and shrunk down to tiny ornaments, or wearable art.); and the new Don’t Free Freddy doll, in time for Christmas. Freddy is a spirited, mischievous electronic little monster—in handcuffs—with plenty to say. He pleads to be set free (“Please let me out. I promise to play nice this time.”) but immediately reverts to bad behavior, of course. “What’s cool about Don’t Free Freddy is that not only is he for eight-, nine- and ten-year-olds, but adults also find him funny,” says Chizick. Indeed, some of Freddy’s laments (“Help! I’m overworked and underplayed.”) and one-liner insults (like the one about the shirt you’re wearing) are designed with adults in mind.

imageAlso in the interactive arena are key chains. Today, the key chain can be more fun than function—which explains why so many people buy so many of them. Novelty companies are making them more elaborate than ever. Basic Fun Toys, Inc., for example, offers more than 100 key chains with licensed designs ranging from mini lava lamps and Magic 8 Balls to Mr. Potato Head and M&Ms. Every year the company also débuts a set of fully playable key chains in its Game Series. Mini versions of Hungry Hungry Hippo, Air Hockey, Etch-a-Sketch and Candy Land are some of their past offerings. For 2002, Games Series 6 will include Aggravation, Parcheesi and Don’t Spill the Beans. “Everyone loves the key chains because they remind them of their youth… That’s the great part about it,” says Carrie Cunningham, marketing spokeswoman for the company. Retro ’70s themes are also still big, she says, as are licensed characters like Wolverine and Spiderman, which will tie in with a new Spiderman movie in the works. “Bop It, an electronic repeat game much like Simon, should also be popular,” she says.

Feeding the need for “cool novelties” for more than a decade,’s arsenal of innovative products includes multicolored inflatable tulips, and the original (and very hip) Belly Light—a happy, inexpensive and pain-free alternative to piercing, the tiny light sticks to the navel and blinks. “Belly Lights are definitely our hottest sellers right now,” says Jerry Phlippeau, president and CEO. “The lights have been featured on the Rosie O’Donnell show and worn by Christina Aguilera.” And the market for them isn’t exclusively the teen or GenY consumer: 50-somethings love them, too. “Even Regis Philbin put one on!” According to Phlippeau, total sales for the Belly Light have topped $2 million in just seven months, no doubt helped by the eye-catching cardboard display shaped like a woman’s waistline.

With that success under their belt, created Zap Wraps—animated, illuminated bands that wind around the wrist or ankle and resemble bands of fire. “On the whole, you can’t go wrong with light-up stuff,” Phlippeau says. “Everybody loves it, and kids in particular really want to be seen. If you have lights on, you’ll definitely stand out in the crowd.” And so will the cart that displays the light-up novelties.

Shelf life

Gag-type novelties have a shelf-life, usually short, since their very existence depends on the joke. Once the novelty wears off—once the joke runs its course and the owner runs out of new observers (or victims)—the owner “gets rid of it or sells it at a yard sale,” says Hall.

On the other hand, there are certain types of novelties that don’t depend on a momentary flash of humor. And novelties with the greatest longevity are those that overlap other categories. The lava lamp, new or original, is one example. So are collectables. Everything Elvis, the quintessential “novelty” category, is also a top collectable category. Bill Westrick, VP of Nostalgic Images, who makes mounted tin signs, full-scale street signs and other collectable novelties, says that images of the King still reign supreme in the nostalgia paraphernalia market. And this company should know: their nine Elvis designs are among their hottest sellers, topping more than 400 styles. Westrick says several other themes and licensed properties are also hot right now. Among the items that overlap categories—in this case, collectables plus home décor—are their reproductions of vintage metal advertising signs, and items with movie and TV themes, all very much in demand. “Right now, the most popular vintage images are Elvis, Coca-Cola,
The Wizard of Oz, The Three Stooges, and Barney Fife—surprisingly,” he says. “Anything ‘Andy Griffith’ is hot right now,” which suggests that the huge popularity of ’50s and ’60s sitcom reruns across demographic lines are driving these sales.

Collectors are still collecting, of course, but it’s a surprise to Westrick that their tin signs are making their way out of garages and basements into the home’s living areas—something gag novelties rarely do. The signs’ graphics and colors work with today’s looks: Westrick says the trend in home décor is creating the demand for black and white. “It’s easier to decorate with, and it looks more upscale as opposed to tacky. People don’t want junk anymore.”

“Junk” is in they eye of the beholder, of course. Consumers who buy a gag novelty are buying its comic effect, not its artistry or quality. Those who buy a vintage-TV lunch box, for example, or anything Elvis are buying collectability—a bit of nostalgia, an addition to a collection, or a potential increase in value—not usefulness. But whatever the item or the motivation to buy, consumers are enjoying the novelties as never before. And so are the retailers who sell them.

Lauryn Mittleman

Mittleman is a regular contributor to Specialty Retail Report

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