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Bridging The Gap: Promo Turning Retail


This is a guest post from ePromos’ Merchandising Manager, Jamie Von Bank. Jamie will be sharing her merchandising insight in a new monthly column on the blog: Merchandising Minute. Check it out every month to see what Jamie has to say on leading trends in the promo industry!

As a rookie in the promotional products industry, I was eager to attend my first PPAI Expo last month, the promo industry’s largest tradeshow. Coming from a retail background, I expected to be overloaded with a plethora of generic tote bags, pens, t-shirts and tumblers. While all this was true, as I walked the show floor I was surprised to see many similarities to my previous retail world.

custom bluetooth speaker

Technology, always hot at retail, is also popular for promos.

For example, electronics were a predominate trend. This category skyrocketed at my previous company over the past year and always offers blockbuster items for major retailers during the holiday season.

When it came to promotional apparel, I expected the items to be basic and lacking in style. I was surprised to find apparel that was fitted, detailed and featured trendy color selections. I was impressed with the quality of the fabrics and the new decoration methods that many suppliers were using to elevate their products.

Accessories such as bags, sunglasses and cell phone covers showcased fashionable patterns, textures and colors. One booth in particular had impressive cell phone and iPad cases. You could feel the quality of the products when you picked them up, and they offered a wide variety of colors.

custom iPad case

The Tiffany-esque blue of this promo makes it an instant attention-grabber.

The cell phone case that stood out to me was a recognizable light blue color that instantly reminded me of the little blue box from Tiffany’s. It’s a color that resonates with most women and immediately makes you think luxury. Not surprisingly we found out this supplier was brand new to the industry this year, a true retailer at heart trying to expand the business with promotional products.

Other unique items looked like they stepped right off the pages of a Willliams-Sonoma or North Face catalog. I did not expect to see booths that exhibited well-known retail brands including Tumi, Nike, Brookstone, Puma and Camelbak.

In my previous position as a buyer, we were always looking for timely, topical and newsworthy products that were relevant to what was happening in the world. It was almost always guaranteed that once a trend became mainstream, everyone had jumped on the bandwagon and created their own version of that particular product.

custom bags

Fashionable patterns make a big statement for promo bags.

I found that to be no different as I explored the PPAI show. Not only does everyone try to out-do one another by offering a variation of the same product, but staying relevant with today’s culture was also prevalent. Some themes that highlight this are: the red solo cup, Beats-style headphones, stadium bags, camouflage, and neon colors.

So why is the industry making the swing to more retail-like products? As I asked myself, I questioned if it could be any of the following:

  • Brand recognition or loyalty
  • More attractive, desirable or useful items
  • Higher perceived value
  • Better quality and longer life-span of the product
  • A way for suppliers to stand out and differentiate themselves
  • More effective marketing for customers
  • Better experience for the end user, more likely to stay in their hands

The answer is not black and white but one thing is for certain: the gap between promotional and retail products is quickly closing in.


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