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Summer 2005 Getting Personal

Come the holidays, shoppers will comb the malls in search of unique gifts that don’t require a lot of cash, but do require some degree of thought—or at least look like they do. For many, the answer is personalized ornaments. “Giving someone an ornament with his or her name on it shows that you put some thought into it—that you didn’t just buy a sweater for everyone on your list,” says Jim Casey, owner of Ornament Central (Pepperell, MA).

Christmas ornaments are big business, with annual sales of about $400 million and annual growth at about 4 percent, according to Milestone Merchant Partners (Washington, DC). Ornaments have been a stable product category, as well. “Our industry is pretty recession-proof,” says Susan Brielmann, VP and designer at Rudolph & Me (Sarasota, FL). “Even when things aren’t going well, people can still get into the Christmas spirit.” And buying ornaments doesn’t mean having to spend big bucks.

Glass ornaments in a wide variety of styles and prices are currently the most popular type of holiday ornament overall, says Mary Ford, editor of the trade publication Selling Christmas Decorations. But in a specialty retail environment, personalized ornaments made of resin, wood, glass, ceramics, dough, Claydough or other materials are a niche that works particularly well. “Personalized ornaments are pretty common in malls,” says Ford. And there’s a reason for that: year after year, holiday shoppers prove they love buying them for holiday-gift recipients who love getting them. “When you personalize an ornament, you add value to it either as a collectible or as a gift,” says Stephanie Eddy, co-owner of Calliope Designs (Santa Rosa, CA).

Your name here

Personalizing ornaments is “a trend that seems to get bigger and bigger each year,” says Debi Allison, owner/designer of Deb & Co. (Buena Vista, VA). Brielmann attributes this growth partly to the many unique names of kids today. “Children are being given more unusual names with unique spellings,” she says. “It can be hard to find pre-personalized items with the correct spelling, so it’s much nicer when items are personalized on the spot.”

And that’s where specialty retailers come in—and have been there for a number of years. “Personalization is a service that the specialty retailer can provide that can give [the retailer] an advantage over the larger store,” says Barbara Newton, owner of Vincent Van Dough (Victoria, BC). And when an ornament is personalized on the spot, it’s added value received—the consumer enjoys the experience, and often feels the service and the finished product were worth every penny and then some.

Ornament suppliers, who design almost all of their ornaments so that they can be personalized, note that retailers usually build personalizing into the cost and include it in the retail price. And the good news is, the cost of personalization is negligible. That’s because ornaments can be personalized in less than a minute with a special permanent pen or marker—and “one marker can be used to personalize hundreds of ornaments,” says Danny Gu, owner of Bears in Chairs (Emerson, NJ). Companies provide short training sessions either in person or on the phone, or give informative booklets about wielding the pen. And no artistic skill required: “Anyone with a steady hand who hasn’t been drinking too much coffee can do it,” says Newton. And on some ornaments, if you do make a mistake, just wipe it off and try again.

“Once customers buy an ornament and see it personalized, they might decide to buy a few more right then and there,” says Eddy. “This happens a lot a couple of weeks before Christmas, when people think about all the people on their list whom they have not gotten a gift for yet.” And they buy personalized ornaments not just for friends and relatives, but for other individuals (such as teachers) and even groups.

All in the family

“There’s no place like home for the holidays,” the old song goes. Home, family, holidays: not that anyone would need an explanation for why family ornaments are perhaps the strongest subcategory in the personalized-ornament niche.

They’re an annual tradition for many families, who have them personalized with each family member’s name and that year’s celebration date. Julia Chapman, national sales manager for Gift Giant (Central Islip, NY), says, “We have 13 categories in the personalized ornament line, and our family category is the most popular. We make about 20 different styles of family ornaments.”

Family ornaments will continue to be strong this year, and they may be more popular than ever. “With what’s happening with the war, people are taking a step back and returning to more family values,” says Brielmann. “Family has become more important.”

But that doesn’t mean they’re turning solemn for the holidays—not at all. As before, family ornaments tend to be lighthearted and whimsical: families of snowpeople, penguins, gingerbread people, bears, reindeer and (yes) cute people appear in many manufacturers’ lines.

Newton notes a strength in ornaments that spell a word such as “Joy,” “Peace ” or “Ho Ho Ho.” And “the curl in the ‘J’ in ‘Joy’ may resemble an elf’s foot,” she says. Snowmen remain a hugely popular theme, quite possibly because they’re “neutral” non-holiday symbols of the season. Whatever the reason, “they’re everywhere,” says Allison. “They’ve almost overtaken Santa Claus.”

But it’s not just about tree ornaments anymore. Ornament Central makes a fireplace ornament with up to 11 stockings that can be personalized with individuals’ names, and a family of carolers holding a songbook and standing under a lamppost. Calliope Designs makes a Christmas tree with up to eight gift packages under it—one name goes on each package. Mother Moose Enterprises (Missoula, MT) makes a line with a header piece with charms and bells that hang down. The consumer can choose header pieces and individual charms from a selection of more than 100, to match or reflect each family member’s interest—a soccer charm for the soccer player, for instance, or even a dog or cat charm for the family pet.

Speaking of Fido, Christmas Cove, Gift Giant and Calliope Designs all report that year after year, their dog-bone ornament is a top seller. “A nice thing about the bone is that it’s generic, so it will do for a Chihuahua or a Lab,” says Eddy, who admits she hasn’t yet hit on an ornament for cats that sells particularly well.

People who buy ornaments around the holidays tend to do so year after year. Brielmann estimates that about 60 to 65 percent of Rudolph & Me sales come from repeat business.

Allison notes that “People may buy one ornament for themselves as well as one for everyone on their list. Their friends and family expect to get an ornament from that person every year,” she says.

“Grandparents will buy an ornament for each of their grandchildren every year. Parents will buy one for each child, as well as a family ornament.” Brielmann says parents often buy an ornament to commemorate each year in a child’s life. “Some parents let the children choose their own ornaments,” she adds; and when the child moves out, gets married or has the first baby, the parents may give their grown child his or her collection of ornaments.

It’s also common for people to buy an ornament as a gift for friends and neighbors they may visit during the holidays. For instance, one of Gift Giant’s most popular ornaments has a picket fence, a mailbox and a snowdrift on which you can write the neighbors’ name and house number. People often buy for teachers and co-workers, as well. “I have one customer who is a Realtor,” says Eddy. “She buys an ornament for everyone whose house she sold that year, and she buys for those same people year after year. She has an Excel spreadsheet with all the names and which ornament she has already bought for each person.”

And then there are the Christmas-ornament collectors, who “tend to collect a certain look,” says Newton. Whether they collect a theme or character or designer, they buy them because they love them—and they love to see the collection grow. And while these buyers do give ornaments as gifts, they hold the ones they buy for their own collections, and add to them regularly.

Big moments

Graduation. Wedding. New home. New baby. Ornaments that commemorate a special occasion are also a consistently strong category. “Stock up on ornaments that celebrate major life events,” says Eddy.

“I’m seeing a new strength in baby ornaments,” says Newton. “The oldest children of the baby boomers are now starting to have babies of their own, and I’ve noticed that our sales of baby products are going up.” There’s a plethora of baby ornaments, cute little bears or lambs or booties or bunnies. One ornament features a little snowgirl or snowboy. Gift Giant’s most popular baby ornament, says Chapman, is a baby swinging from a star, in pink or blue.

And the big moments keep coming: first tooth, first birthday, first day of school, and so on through the years. “Parents are always looking for new ornaments that celebrate milestones, to give to their children to remember that year,” says Casey. “If your six-year-old daughter is taking ballet lessons, you might buy a ballerina ornament that year,” says Brielmann. There are figurines of kids with braces, or schoolbooks, or diplomas, and ornaments that celebrate a first driver’s license.

Sports, jobs and more

In the personalization market, ornaments that depict a certain sport are always a hit. “If a boy plays basketball, his mother might buy him an ornament related to basketball,” says Tony Espinosa, owner of Christmas Cove (Atlanta, GA). “Or a football coach may buy football-player ornaments for every player on his team, and personalize them with the name of the team, the child’s name and the number on his jersey.” Ditto for the girls’ soccer coach.

But it’s not just about kids: From tennis and soccer to golf and lacrosse as well as the “big three” (baseball, basketball and football) personalized sports-themed ornaments delight grown-ups, too. And since ornaments also reflect what’s happening in popular culture, the current popularity of poker among young people has created a demand for poker-player ornaments, says Casey. Reflecting a different popular trend and a different age group is Deb & Co.’s Red-Hot Belly Bear wearing a red hat and purple dress, like the ladies of the Red Hat Society. Sales have “gone through the roof,” Allison says.

And ornaments go to work. Ornaments depicting trades and professions are popular gifts inside the family circle and out. “People may give one to their boss, co-worker or assistant [and] also to their doctor, vet, dental hygienist, schoolteacher or coach,” says Brielmann. Chapman says Gift Giant’s teacher ornament is the most popular in the company’s professions category. Bears in Chairs also makes ornaments for specific jobs, such as its firefighter ornament, a bear with firefighter hat and hose. And its executive ornament, a male or female bear sitting at a desk with a computer and phone, can be personalized for almost any office profession—for instance, the person’s name plus something like “Best Attorney” or “Super Supervisor.”

And some new themes are emerging. For example, with the war in Iraq, military ornaments are currently strong sellers. Several companies report that figurines wearing Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines uniforms are selling well. “And there’s a trend toward more patriotic ornaments, such as a snowman waving a flag,” says Brielmann, and to ornaments that appeal to the culturally diverse marketplace. “I’ve also noticed growing interest in ethnic ornaments,” he says. Some have sayings such as “Proud to be Irish” or “Feliz Navidad.” And there are figurines that depict people of various cultures or races.

Selling it

Manufacturers say consumers are willing to pay about $9 to $15 retail for a personalized ornament. For a family ornament, Casey recommends charging a little extra if there are many names. “You can charge $15 to $18 for a family ornament and customers won’t bat an eye,” he says. When it’s a gift, one family ornament goes to several people, so the purchaser takes that into account and expects to spend a little more.

Typical mark-up for personalized ornaments is 300 percent, says Newton. “Specialty retailers have to pay huge sums to malls during the holiday season,” she says. “You need a good mark-up.”

You also need to make it clear to shoppers walking by that you offer personalization, says Eddy. On her cart, called Personalize Your Christmas, she posts “Free Personalization” signs at eye level. “But some people still don’t get it, so it’s important to put up pre-personalized samples.” Do all you can to make that display irresistible, so that you draw shoppers in. And if possible, let them see you personalizing your products—nothing sells better than a demonstration of the “artist” at work.

What’s in a name

Personalizing adds value for the buyer at very little cost to the retailer. Putting a name on an ornament makes it something special; makes it truly “belong” to the person whose name is on it; makes it a keepsake—and keeps this product niche going strong.

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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