April 14, 2010 • Sarah Schwartz
Market Update: It’s All About Value

Even in a gloomy economy, there remain bright spots.

Bob Dylan would probably agree that you don’t have to be a weatherman to realize it seems pretty dark outside. In January, the National Retail Federation (NRF) announced that retail sales would drop 0.5 percent this year, the first decline since the group started tracking them in 1995. And although spending is expected to rebound later this year, shoppers will remain cautious, seeking the best value at the lowest price.

That doesn’t mean they have forgotten about favorite brands or quality, emphasized style consultant and author Sherrie Mathieson in U.S.A. Today. “The modus operandi of shopping wisely will always need to be a mix of trying to get value at a lesser price and knowing when to go for it.”

The independent retailer actually has a bit of an edge. A survey by the nonprofit organization Local Self-Reliance found that independent retailers in a wide range of categories experienced average December sales declines of 5 percent, compared to 9.8 percent for retail sales overall.

And consumers are still responding — albeit weakly — to eco-conscious initiatives: The study found that retailers in cities that sponsored “Buy Independent/Local” campaigns had average declines of just 3.2 percent. The same article quoted Jeff Milchen, co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance, describing these shoppers as “realizing cheapness is not the same as value.”

To that end, there are style currents to be aware of that straddle the line between fashion and function. They are quite pronounced in the following markets: Green, Baby, Bridal, Greeting Cards and Office.

The Green movement started with a bang, and slowed down like everything around it. According to Mintel research, the number of Americans who always or regularly buy green products tripled between 2007 and 2008, from 12 to 36 percent, but then remained unchanged this year. However, Mintel forecasts 19 percent growth overall through 2013.
Regardless, the movement’s effects are particularly pronounced in the stationery and gift markets. Josh Title of cate & levi spoke for a bevy of vendors when he commented, “I’m inspired to show people that beautiful products can be crafted responsibly using existing materials.”

One important caveat: While sustainable packaging is not a primary purchasing motivator, disregarding it may cause a consumer to keep walking, according to The Hartman Group. Three in four consumers ranked the ability to return a product’s vessel to the marketplace as either “very important” or “important.”

What’s Hot: Clean modern lines and whimsical, hand-drawn elements. “Green design can take all sorts of forms,” said Laura Whipple of Tenth & Grant, “and we celebrate the range of styles in the marketplace that incorporate recycled papers, soy-based inks and other sustainable characteristics.”

Tried and True: Sentimental language; nature-inspired images and patterns; animal illustrations, particularly dogs and cats; bold patterns; 100 percent PCW paper and soy-based or vegetable inks.

Designer Quote: “Our business has been Green Certified, and we’ve moved to alternative forms of electricity. The certification looked at every aspect of our business, from the types of printers and lights we use to the landscaping outside our building, so it goes much farther than just the invitation that gets shipped out. However, we love that the cotton used for our papers is recovered from the waste stream. It would be landfill if it wasn’t turned into paper.” — Trish Kinsella, Dauphine Press

Babies still continue to be born, and, as such, the need for announcements, thank-yous and related product will endure. However, there’s been an important shift in attitude, according to Jen Parker of Canopy Cards. “We think the current environment puts the focus on things sentimental. Folks are cutting back but hopefully not cutting out the things that keep them connected. We’re seeing a greater focus on lasting gifts, on taking the time to write that thank-you note, on doing little things to delight loved ones.”

With that philosophy, Canopy’s line encompasses Baby Love Letters, written at first-year milestones such as smiling to share with the child later, as well as birthday love letters, created for those milestones. These types of products, Parker continued, “put the focus on the most important aspect of this market: the child!”

This echoes attachment parenting — that is, parenting that emphasizes the parent-child bond — very much coming into vogue, so gift items like stylish swaddle blankets, slings and pouches are important to consider integrating into the mix.

What’s Hot: a sense of pared-down simplicity, despite cheerful plaids and polka dots; traditional baby shades paired with brown; pregnancy silhouettes; multiple-birth oriented offerings.
Tried and True: Digital announcements and invitations, often available in albums; imagery like bassinets, prams and crosses.

Designer Quote: “Our customers inspire our designs. They have responded positively to the Bella Ink look as well as offered some great suggestions for product additions. It’s fabulous when they let us know something is missing from the marketplace.” —Melissa Danaher, Bella Ink Designs

Forget the economy — brides have waited their entire lives for this moment and they’re not going to let anything stop them. “Today’s bride is looking for a red carpet wedding,” explained Anna Griffin. “So, all aspects need to be over the top and fabulous.”

“From crystals, ribbon and layers, you name it, the brides want it!” agreed Theresa Kuo of b.t.elements. “Gone is the basic, single-layer flat card invite. Brides want a little extra to make their invitation stand out from the rest.”
However, if you think brides were difficult before, they now want all that at a bargain. “We are inspired by the challenge of making things more affordable for everyone,” described Meena Merchant of Marsupial Pouches & Papers, “while keeping with our design standards and paper quality.”

What’s Hot: Think modern, clean, youthful and customizable, with familiar elements retooled and often green. Anna Griffin creates a three-dimensional quality with elements like a glittered scroll die-cut, while b.t.elements finds that when the font is just right, “it invokes a story by itself.”

Tried and True: Monograms and initials; pocket folders, inner and outer envelopes, envelope liners and colored envelopes “show no signs of waning after six strong years of sales,” Kinsella noted. Vellum continues to be a “much-needed breath of fresh air,” according to Griffin, who’s printing lace, scroll, eyelet and floral patterns on it for sleeves, pockets, wraps, overlays and belly bands.

Designer quote: “There’s something irresistible about the business of weddings. I’ve always been in love with reliving that ‘pretty bride moment,’ and am drawn to being a part of it day after day. For me, inspiration comes in many forms; I’m a collector at heart, so most of my designs are a nod to the Old-World style I’ve been drawn to since childhood.” — Anna Griffin

Greeting Cards
This category may just be the perfect antidote to the R-word — affordable, practical, authentic and often well-designed. These palm-sized expressions of personal style and sentiments these days often replace a gift, and often ultimately resonate more.

“A greeting card to me represents one of the smallest, simplest pleasures in life,” pointed out Tami Rasmussen of TamTam Design Studio. “How exciting is it to open up the mailbox and find a cute little colored envelope inside with your name on it!”

Try to move away from designs popular in years past in favor of selections having more of a boutique look. “What I find beyond stale is the cat in sunglasses, the chimp in a wig or the fat old lady that apparently is still selling, to someone,” mused Kiki Parry of Alternate Greetings. “Am I gonna get my (butt) kicked for that by a cat in sunglasses?”

What’s Hot: Cheerful splashes of color; stripes, swirls and dots; vintage elements; 100 percent recycled paper with earth-friendly packaging; funny and edgy sentiments. “People need cards to make them laugh when times seem stressful or grim,” Parry suggested.

Tried and True: Owls and birds; clever wordplay; cupcakes; pink and brown; black and white; butterflies; and sparkle.

Designer Quote: “Smart, intelligent writing is always fashionable.” — Phyllis Wright-Herman, MikWright

This consumer category can be deceptively simple for the independent retailer. Office products must really straddle the line between quality and price. “When creating our products, we are inspired to maintain a high level of design while keeping tight budgets in mind,” commented Elly Fine of Three by Three Seattle.

Galison’s collection “started out with the concept of pairing office products with patterns to create products both functional and attractive,” said the company’s Juanita Dharmazi. “We’ll be adding two new formats: business card and pencil cup holders. During research, we noticed that most card holders on the market were either industrial-looking or expensive, so we are proud to have developed an attractive item that is also functional and affordable.”
Sian Humphrey of Made by Humans sees green product — as well as packaging — in demand and reports that their eco-friendly Staple Free Stapler is “being bought up by thousands of consumers across North America.”

“Recession is mind over matter,” she finished. “We don’t mind, so it doesn’t matter.”

What’s Hot: Metallic finishes; magnet and dry erase boards; decorative expanding files and magazine holders.
Tried and True: Clipboards; file folders; botanical elements including flowers, insects, butterflies and particularly birds

Designer Quote: “Our team gets its inspiration from everything around us. We enjoy going out of the office for inspiration and often visit museums, exhibitions, art shows, and flea markets or simply take a stroll through trendy areas like Soho and Brooklyn.” — Juanita Dharmazi

Special thanks to: Melissa Danaher, Bella Ink Designs; Juanita Dharmazi, Galison; Elly Fine, Three by Three Seattle; Mark Gavin, ecojot; Anna Griffin, Anna Griffin Inc.; Sian Humphrey, Made By Humans; Trish Kinsella, Dauphine Press; Theresa Kuo, b.t. elements; Laurie Mee, Two Trick Pony; Meena Merchant, Marsupial Pouches & Papers; Jen Parker, Canopy Cards; Kiki Parry, Alternate Greetings; Deborah Payne, Studio Expressio; Tami Rasmussen, TamTam Design Studio; Laura Whipple, Tenth & Grant; and Phyllis Wright-Herman, MikWright.

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