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Winter 2005 Merchandise with a Message

A movement is afoot. Or maybe it’s more a cultural quest. Americans are increasingly seeking meaning in these troubled times. And in that search they respond to and spread a sense of spiritual well-being in tangible, often decorative ways: They buy items with inspirational sayings and symbols. Whether distinctly religious or more generically inspirational, consumers are spending billions on products emblazoned with meaningful, feel-good messages.

Sales of religious products topped $6.8 billion in 2003, according to “US Market for Religious Publishing and Products,” a report by Packaged Facts, a publishing division of MarketResearch.com. Of that $6.8 billion, stationery, giftware and merchandise account for $1.9 billion; books, $3.5 billion; and audio, video and software products, $1.4 billion.

The Christian Booksellers Association, an international trade association of Christian retailers and suppliers, said sales by member suppliers hit $4.2 billion in 2002. And Giftbeat, a monthly newsletter that tracks product trends in the gift industry, polled more than 300 independent gift retailers last February about the inspirational market. The poll shows that compared to the previous year’s sales, the category was trending up for 45 percent of the stores, and holding steady for an additional 30 percent. “I see the inspirational market as a key category for gift retailers going forward,” says Joyce Washnik, editor of Giftbeat. “While interest gets stronger in the fourth quarter, it also has staying power throughout the rest of the year.”

Why all the interest? Many credit the controversial, highly popular movie, The Passion of the Christ, with sparking a renewed interest in religious themes in pop culture. “The Passion helped raise the demand for Christian products to another level,” says Chris Rainey, marketing director of Kerusso (Berryville, AR), a manufacturer of inspirational products.

But the film is only one contributing factor, and a fairly recent one at that. Packaged Facts’ report points to a study by the Media Research Center, which says in the year ending March 1, 2003, major TV networks broadcast 303 stories on religion, compared with 121 the year before. The recent best-selling, religious-themed books The Da Vinci Code and The Purpose-Driven Life, and the hit TV show Joan of Arcadia—which owes its existence in part to the tremendous success of the long-running Touched by an Angel—all helped bring the topic even further to the pop-culture forefront.

In addition, many believe that a search for meaning, a quest for spiritual connection in the wake of 9/11 helped boost the demand for inspirational products. “More and more people are searching for things that give them comfort, that show them God’s love and that give the reassuring feeling that we’re all protected,” says Karen Germany, designer and co-owner of KVK Inc. (Southlake, TX). In the same vein, “People think a lot more about their faith and what matters, and they want to give more meaningful gifts,” says Cindy Martin, owner of Faith Creations (Cumming, GA).

Industry trends

image“In the giftware industry, more religious or just general inspirational articles are becoming more popular,” says Susan Wagner, editor of Country Business magazine, which focuses on the home décor and gift markets. “We’re seeing a lot of this sentiment-based product in jewelry and stationery [cards and journals], but it is also appearing in home décor, such as frames with an inspirational word or scripture quote engraved on them,” she says. And it appeals to both the religious market and the “religious light,” as she calls it: “consumers who want a little inspirational item in their homes but nothing heavy… a nice quote or inspiring word, while others might choose a product with a cross or [other] religious symbol.”

Figurines, crosses, plaques and gift books are hot right now, says Washnik. Particularly popular are angels, “from figurines to smaller, keepsake angel stones or tokens.” Marketers are also having success with prayer boxes, T-shirts, candleholders, buttons, magnets, bookmarks, ornaments and garden decorations that carry a religious or inspirational message.

Another trend: inspirational products with versions in Spanish. “The Spanish market is a growing segment” says Robert Launey, president and co-owner of LHH&F, Inc. (New York). This year, LHH&F launched a Spanish version of its successful Humanity bracelet to “tap into the 37 million Latino population in North America,” he says.

As it increases in popularity, the religious category is going mainstream. Retail members of the Christian Booksellers Assn. as well as Judaic stores have lost market share to general retail giants like Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Target, which are capitalizing on the current popularity of the category, and to general gift stores that are now introducing or expanding their inspirational offerings. “When the mainstream market and big-box retailers start to carry this type of product, you know it’s because there’s a market for it,” says Rainey. According to the Christian Booksellers Assn., more than a quarter of its members’ 2002 sales were through general retailers. Published Facts cites an article in Forbes (Oct. 2003) that estimated Wal-Mart’s sales of Christian-themed items at $1 billion for 2003.

Deb McCormick, owner of Heart Steps (Waupaca, WI), says, “When Hallmark bought DaySpring, a major Christian greeting-card company, a few years ago, it made a significant statement about where the industry was heading.” McCormick says that when her company began 10 years ago, she was one of a relative few religious-product suppliers displaying at general gift-market trade shows. “Now, more and more buyers are looking for inspirational products at the general gift market,” she says.

And there’s a reason for that. According to a 1998 survey sponsored by Christian Booksellers Assn. and conducted by Britt Beemer’s America’s Research Group, nearly half of frequent church-goers (those who attend services three or more times a month) said they “never shop at a Christian retail store.” “A lot of people don’t know Christian retail stores exist,” Beemer says. Or they don’t know where they are, usually tucked in strip centers or other small or inconvenient locations. “But they shop in the mall all the time,” he says, and this reality gives carts, kiosks and other specialty retailers a tremendous opportunity to reach an untapped market.

Whether in a religious-goods store, a big-box retailer or at the mall, consumers enjoy a plethora of inspirational products, some serious, some light-hearted, and all of them quite personal. Here’s a look at some of what’s out there, from jewelry to apparel to home décor.

Jewelry

imagePendants, pins, bracelets, earrings and more—they range from low-end to top- dollar, and they’re everywhere. Some are fairly basic and simple—a gold Star of David on a chain, for example, or silver cross earrings. But because the demand is up for inspirational jewelry, from traditional religion to New Age, classic designs to hip new takes, marketers of these products keep coming out with creative interpretations of faith and spirituality.

LHH&FInc.isintroducing the Uncontestable Ten, a line of necklaces that “reaffirms the value and impact of the Ten Commandments.” Each necklace features 10 roman numerals, comes with a booklet about the commandments’ impact, and comes in gold plate, two-tone plate, and 14k gold. The company’s core product is its Humanity bracelet, which features seven discs, each with a virtue such as Courage, Love or Truth engraved on each side. Launey says more than 100,000 bracelets have sold since their introduction in 1997. The bracelet, which comes in a jeweler’s wrap with a book called Words to Live By, is available in pewter brushed with silver, sterling, and gold (two-tone or 14k). The company also makes a pendant necklace in pewter or sterling, with a virtue on each side.

Faith Creations’ handcrafted inspirational jewelry for women and girls is gift-boxed with a prayer card. One popular style is the Prayer Box bracelet, a bracelet with a prayer-box charm. The Mother’s Blessing bracelet depicts a mother praying over a baby, and includes a card about a mother’s love. The company also makes a Breast Cancer Awareness bracelet featuring the pink ribbon symbol, and donates a portion of the proceeds to a related charity. Bracelets are made of silverplate or pewter; some come in sterling, and feature crystals, pearls and lampwork beads. Martin says the company has grown from 100 to 350 clients in the past year.

Much of the Singer Co.’s (Long Island City, NY) inspirational jewelry is sterling silver. Their charm bracelets feature angel charms, or charms that hold a photo and have a cross attached. The company also has gifts for special occasions, such as sterling rosaries or First Communion medals.

Kerusso has rainbow “promise” rings. They work like mood rings, but a message from the Bible and a corresponding Bible verse are attached to each color—for instance, orange is hope, and blue is comfort.

Apparel

imageJewelry isn’t the only way to wear an inspirational message. Kerusso, for example, makes a line of T-shirts, hoodies and sweatshirts with religious images and words. “We continue to look at mainstream fashion trends in designing products that allow people to express their faith while maintaining their style,” says Rainey. Kerusso’s new line features a poster look, following a trend Rainey says is popular in college circles. The shirts may have a big, rough, sketchy portrait of Christ plus a Bible verse, for instance. One new design targeted to teenage girls has the words, “Sorry, I’m taken,” and a Bible verse under it. “Our designs are not subtle,” says Rainey. “They’re not hiding the fact that there’s a Christian message, but they’re not goofy—they have a ‘cool’ factor.”

In 2005, Kerusso plans to extend the same looks and messages down to their customers’ feet, with a line of flip-flops in two designs for men and two for women. “Sandal sales are at $7.5 billion per year, and flip-flops are about 25 percent of that,” says Rainey. “We think we have a great opportunity to provide a catchy product with an inspirational message.”

Home décor

Whether for the wall or on a stand, plaques with a message allow you to say something special to someone, like a greeting card that doesn’t get thrown away. Magique Novelties, (Roselle, IL) offers a line of mirrored glass plaques, some with tea-light holders, many with angels, that feature silk-screened Bible verses, prayers or inspirational sayings, often specific to a mother, daughter, sister or friend, in English or Spanish. “They’re usually bought by women for another woman,” says Jim Golomb, president and owner. Another popular item, he says, is the birthstone angel figurine.

Similarly, 80 percent of the buyers of RK Productions’ (Maple Ridge, BC) Harmony plaques are women, says owner Randy Koufalis. RK Productions’ decorative plaques, handcrafted from natural stone, feature inspirational sayings and come in 45 designs. Heart Steps makes bronze and marble plaques, marble boxes, and glass and mirror photo frames with scripture quotes or inspirational messages such as “You are a blessing to me.” Many of the quotes would be relevant to Jewish consumers as well as Christians, says McCormick. In addition to inspirational messages for women are prayers for firefighters and police officers. “Ten years ago, we had inspirational products and people asked us why,” says McCormick. “Now, people are asking us for more.”

Last year, KVK Inc. introduced its “In His Hands” line of resin figurines featuring little characters of different ethnic backgrounds in God’s hands. The company is now bringing out a line of Top of the World ornaments, with a little character sitting on top of the world and messages like “Peace on Earth.” One of the figurines includes a clock and reads, “God is good all the time.” Myra Smith, marketing director for the United Design Division of The Encore Group (Winston-Salem, NC), says she finds that demand for crosses, either standing or for the wall, is strong. Many of United Design’s other products are adorned with crosses. Also doing well, she says, is the company’s line of Bible boxes, shadow boxes and prayer boxes, to hold a slip of paper on which you’ve written a prayer or the name of someone you want to pray for.

God goes outdoors, too. The success of inspirational garden products shows that people aren’t shy about displaying their beliefs for all the world to see. Among the many products on the market are garden stones with inspirational words or quotes; and figurines of angels and saints; United Design’s large cross with solar features; and inspirational statues and fountains often featuring angels.

Impulse items

For retailers who want to get into this category, some marketers suggest starting with a few impulse items. These might include buttons—Rainey says Kerusso has sold 600,000 inspirational buttons, which are influenced by the company’s T-shirt designs. Other small impulse items are magnets, book clips and bookmarks, and key chains—such as Faith Creations’ Prayer Box key chain; and jewelry, such as United Design’s birthstone crosses or Kerusso’s promise rings.

Also on the small side: Heart Steps’s “mini’s.” The company says they’ve had success with their line of mini-books, mini-crosses, and little marble hearts with an easel back, all featuring words of encouragement or scriptural quotes.

And then there’s the unexpected item, like Kerusso’s tape measure. Last year, the company introduced a yellow and black construction-grade tape measure with an inspirational message on the side. It flew off the shelf, says Rainey. Builders and carpenters (and one would imagine
DIY-ers) are loving it; some contractors are buying them as gifts for their staffs. The company had the same success with an inspirational-message flashlight, and will introduce a multi-tool kit with a message, one version targeted to men, another to women. “It’s amazing to see the different areas of life where people see the opportunity to display their faith.”

Good news

People are willing, even eager, to show their spiritual side these days. It means something to more people than ever to display it, wear it, share it by means of products with a message. Whether they choose symbols of traditional religions or a softer, more generic spirituality, they’re looking for meaning—and they’re buying products that reflect and reaffirm their feelings. Good for them. Good for you.


Bernadette Starzee

Starzee, a Long Island, NY writer who covers business, sports and lifestyle topics, is a senior writer for SRR. She can be reached at .

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