Atlanta and some Snippets

After 15 years of wandering her 7 million square feet of showrooms, the Atlanta Mart has become kinda like that old friend who never changes. That friend you aren’t sure you want to spend time with until they show up, then you immediately drop back into the groove and pick up where you left off last time. At least until you get tired and wish they would go home.

Every time we go hoping to find new and exciting trends, enthusiastic partners and huge opportunities. It does happen – after some markets we have worked and planned all the way home, flush with exciting new options that spark creative fire. Others have been more toward the “meh” side of the spectrum. Like this one. It was quiet this year, sometimes eerily so. On occasion you could look down a hallway and there was nobody in sight. For a hundred yards. Empty elevators and bathrooms, extra free lunches being tossed, and room to move at cash and carry. Our clients were taking the “it’s slow but steady” reporting path, but of course they have to keep the faith. I have been there enough times that I’m not buying it. But that’s just me. Hopefully they had a big weekend.

Millions of square feet but not much in the way of new and noteworthy. Loads of shiny stuff, metallics, bling accessories and of course lots of apparel in the gift showrooms. Camo is mostly gone, chalkboard greatly reduced, but words are still everywhere. Farm to table and country designs are staples. We did see simple primary colors showing up on garden and outdoor products, that was interesting. The handcrafted look is definitely taking front stage now. Real or ersatz cut and paste, stitchery, block printing, found objects, raw wood and rustic signs – the maker movement has come to production product. Hmm, how do you balance that?

The Snippets, however, were flying about as usual. Most are from this market and a couple from conversations and meetings over the last few weeks:

“I keep telling him ‘I love it but I can’t make money off it’”. – company VP about a concept that keeps getting presented

“There’s so much good art out there now that unless your art is stupendous – it’s just more art.” – an agent

“It’s the if’s, that’s how Surtex sucks you in: if you get one decent deal, or if something good happens, or if you won’t know for six months, or if this year it will be better…a lot of if’s for that kind of money.” –an artist who doesn’t do Surtex anymore

“Where there used to be 100 suppliers now there are 1000. Literally. We’re working in a very different world.” – a salesman talking about placing products

“They’re all so desperate to license something that they don’t realize the value of just playing around with an idea until something good pops up. It usually takes a few tries before it’s right for anybody.”
– an agent talking about their artists

“What’s coming next is the ‘scanning model’, where no one gets paid until the product scans out at the retailer point of sale. Some companies, like Cracker Barrel, are already doing it.” – a sales mgr

“People who are fast on their feet and can do customized development for the client, they will be OK. The rest, well….” – a rep talking about licensed product

“He represents a big customer so we have to work with him, but no one can stand it because he has no enthusiasm for the business.” – an art director about a sales rep

“There’s a certain fatigue that comes with trying to push that same rock up that same hill over the years.”
– a successful licensed artist

“We don’t look at portfolios anymore. They have to send it to us, or have an online site we can look through, or we pass.” – the owner of a stationery company

“We have worked with this factory for years, and our lead time was always 30 days. Then it went to 60 days, then it went to 90 days, and now they tell me they need the new designs 120 days ahead of production. All in two years. Sorry to rush it but we need these to them by August.” – gift company owner re: additional product designs…mid-July…

“It’s not about having the most SKUs, it’s about having the most relevant SKUs.” – a sales manager re: recent restructuring

“We show them (a mass retailer) the art, but we don’t want to show them unique formats because they are closely aligned with {a big China factory}, and they just knock everything off.” – from a gift company

“Resin products aren’t doing well so we are only producing the top sellers, no extras or add-ons, while we move in other directions.” – a gift company owner

“They insist tomorrow will be another day like today. They don’t want to think about what these showrooms will look like five years from now. It’s a problem.” – sales manager about the company owners

“This place has turned into an accessories and fashion market.” – from a gift company

“You generally have to kill someone to get on an elevator – this morning I could walk right on. Where are they?”
– a rep in a hallway

“There is so much flat art out there, to get my attention they need to think in product format.” – an art director

“Good things will come from any show. Just putting yourself in the middle of the action generates results.”
– an agent about doing shows and markets

And my favorite:

“Mock this up. We have to present our ideas to four people who cannot visualize anything unless it’s a mocked up product. And they are in the gift business—go figure.” – an art director

Snippets – Atlanta 2015

Well we made it past the normal incubation period, so apparently have managed to get through another Atlanta without catching colds or flu. This year had us worried with all the hoopla about the expanding pandemic and the ineffective vaccine. Gettin’ soft, I guess. Or just gettin’ old… nah, couldn’t be that.

It was a good show, not a record setter but now that we have sent out a bunch of stuff to a bunch of people we are maintaining our optimism. It seems a lot of the licensees are still reacting to the kick in the teeth of the last few years and are concentrating on stabilizing their business while they adapt to a changed market. Inventory control, cash management and staff reductions are still at the forefront for many, and necessarily so. The focus will have to turn back to growth at some point, and that will be good for licensors because the only enduring way to grow a category is through new product and new customers, which directly translates into more opportunity for fresh ideas and good design. Of course not everybody will get there at the same time, and then there’s always the retailer wildcard (since that’s ultimately where all of the decisions come from) but I think it’s what companies will look to next in the progression. Grow or die, you know.

So: Snippets. Lot’s of them. Last January’s unbridled optimism seems to have given way to guarded optimism, as in “things are going well but we’re not out of the woods”. Some people are happy, some not, but it seems like most everybody is still in the game. And really, what more could you ask for?

“People are more practical and less indulgent now and that has definitely affected our market.”
– a sales manager

“Artists need to realize that not every saying works as a wall plaque. They need an audience.” –an agent

“Nobody should ever get into the apparel business because of the huge inventory required.” – somebody in the apparel business

“This is so funny but I don’t know what to do with it.” – an art director

“You can’t make anything for children under three anymore, the entire category has basically been eliminated by safety concerns.” -CEO of a gift company

“That’s often how it works – they tell you it’s great and are thinking about developing a program. Then they disappear and stop answering emails, and it’s generally because some new shiny object has popped up in front of them.” – an agent

“We like it but don’t think it can work. Anytime you have to explain a product past a half-dozen words it becomes difficult to market.” – gift company manager

“We are not putting anything new into production yet, we would need more positive market information to justify the inventory risk.” – a gift company division manager

“Sometimes we reject portfolios because we can’t see who the person is – the art may be cute but there’s no story to follow.” – an agent

“It’s a very clever idea, would be a pure impulse buy. This is a soar or crash item, I only wish we knew which one it will be.” – a licensee in a product meeting

Ronnie: “So I noticed you don’t have any women’s lines. Is that by design?”
Manufacturer: “No, it’s probably because all our lines are picked by three men.”

“Every little variation or new product in the market is not necessarily a trend.” – an agent

“It’s an old look but not old enough to be retro – so it’s just old.” –comment in a hallway about a new product line

“It’s funny but year after year the big lines are still the big lines.” –an agent

“She’s going to find out very quickly that just because you send some art out, that doesn’t mean they will pay any attention to it. There’s a lot more to it than that.” – an agent who just lost an artist

“Tell them I already have their stuff.” – a licensee blowing off a meeting with us

“Management hates these, but women are lining up and taking them off the displays as we set them, so I guess they’re wrong.” – rep overheard in a showroom

‘If you have something good send it anytime. We don’t do call-outs anymore, we just got too much junk.” – a licensee

“So here’s the problem: we have good buyer data from our own DTC (direct to consumer) website, but if the reps don’t agree with us, or don’t like it, it’s still not going to sell.” – owner of a gift company

“We meet with a lot of different artists, and unfortunately not a lot of those artists think it through to the product.”
– creative director at a major gift company

“When words are the main feature I think people get tired of reading them. Patterns work better for us.”
– in a meeting

“It’s not so much the molds and resin as it is the detailed painting because labor costs have gone up so much in China. We use a lot more printing now.” – gift company owner

“I’m climbing this ladder to get there, but I’m not sure where “there” is anymore.” – a widely licensed artist

“The problem with introducing textiles is they have to sell well right out of the chute because the MOQ’s (minimum order quantity) are so high. Management wants items to be selling well in six months, and to sell through in less than 12, so taking 15 to 18 months to build a program is no longer an option.” – a sales manager at a gift company

“I like the sayings but the art is not where we will need it to be.” – an art director saying no

“Unfortunately they needed to draw a line somewhere, and they did it by sales numbers so it becomes arbitrary what skus stay and what skus are dropped.” – a company mgr explaining line cuts

“Garden flags are a dying business.” – from a gift company
“Our flag biz is up 39% over last year.” – from a flag company

“Product needs to be fun. If it’s fun they will buy it.” – gift company owner

“They’re all looking for something that looks like something else successful.” – an artist

“It has been good, and that’s kind of a relief. I think we’ve got it this show.” – president of a gift company

“I look for products that I can sell for 19.99 or less, but they need to look like they cost a lot more than that.”
– a small retail shop owner

“As a creative in this business I have to be working all the time, and artists who don’t get that are done for.”
– a successful licensed artist

“It takes a lot of energy to bring a product line onto the market. You need to create a wave that picks up not only your own people but the reps and retailers as well. If you can do that – and then it actually sells too – well, then you’ve got something.” – gift company owner

And then my favorite:

“No owls. We’re done with owls.” – in a meeting
“Any new owls? Owls always sell well if they’re cute.” – in the next meeting

Snippets Spring 2014

To succeed, jump as quickly at opportunities as you do at conclusions.
-Benjamin Franklin

Everybody had an opinion. The biggest surprise to me, however, was how markedly different many of the viewpoints are. No single comment necessarily defines the direction of the business, and some directly conflict with each other, of course even in the best of times there will be radically different perspectives among people holding essentially identical positions in the industry. But it’s clear things are happening out there. We are hearing about product hits and company cutbacks in the same day. The need for new licensed art and the decision to go in-house, both coming from companies that are direct competitors. So the question is: What’s the take-away from all this?

Let me know when you figure it out.

“We really don’t want to look through an artist’s entire portfolio, we want them to send us some of their art made into our products.” – a creative director

“They have been making the same stuff for going on 15 years now and it’s starting to fade away.” – a sales manager about the company

“Cheap sells. It has to be good but it can’t be expensive.” – owner of a gift company

“People don’t want icons now, no central themes, it’s more of a simple look built from texture and color, maybe with some vintage materials.”- an art director

“It’s definitely not just us, there has been a softening industry wide.”– a sales manager

“We have to be really, really sold on the concept. Have to be, or we cannot make the investment.”– owner of a gift company

“Our showroom bill is 15 thousand, plus thousands more in travel, hotels, shipping and personnel expenses – then we write only three decent orders during the first three days we’re open? How is that worth it?”- a marketing director at the Dallas show

“I hate all this inspirational crap. You are going to get your life’s meaning from a saying on a coaster? Get real.”– a manufacturer (who sells some inspirational crap)

 “Why would I pay out 7 or 8 thousand dollars to meet with someone who wants to do a 3 dollar notecard line with me?”- an artist explaining why she no longer does SURTEX

“The last 6 months have been terrible. I really don’t know where the future of the gift industry is going to be, people are offloading all their clutter because their kids don’t have any interest in it either.”– a sales rep

“We loved it but apparently it’s too perfect, we think we need to “rough” it up a bit to get it to sell”.– a mfr about a (beautiful!) product line

“I can only take so much Christmas before I go cuckoo!”– a retailer overheard in the hallway

“The owners of the mom and pop gift stores are aging out of the business, and when they can’t sell the stores they are closing them down. We have lost 600 in the last 3 years – that’s 3 to 4 a week off the books.”– owner of a gift company

“This kind of stuff we can do in-house; we pay royalties for unique work we don’t do in-house.”– an art director

“Tiny little attention spans – that’s the biggest problem with our industry now. ”– an agent

“I get it, but the people we sell to, the shop owners, they are mostly older women and they will NOT get it. So they won’t buy it.”– a mfr about a social media based line

“I could be interested as long as it’s not being sold at WalMart.”– a retailer to a rep in a showroom

“She’s not here this time, she got a real job.”– overheard in a showroom

Rep: “Can I show you the new (famous artist name) products?”
Retailer: “Uh, yeah… not really, we’re kinda over (famous artist name).” – overheard in a showroom

“We like the way her mind works.”- art director about a favorite artist

“We had 400 skus to work with and corporate has chopped that in half, so we have had to make some tough choices about what goes forward.”– a sales manager about line reductions

“No figures. People do not sell for us.”– a manufacturer about a collection

“It’s OK. Traffic is a little light but maybe that will pick up. Sales are up a little but there does not seem to be any buzz in the market. It’s just… OK.”– a showroom rep in ATL

“Nothing is a real trend right now, so we have to do everything to see what works.”– a gift manufacturer

Ronnie: “How’s the show going?”
Rep: “Well, I wouldn’t call it an unmitigated disaster…”
Ronnie: “So, it’s a mitigated one?”
Rep: “Sure, let’s go with that.”

“Yeah, everybody wants new – right up until they get it.”– an art director

“We tried some of her stuff and it didn’t sell well enough to reorder, so anything new will really have to knock our socks off.”– owner of a gift company

“It can’t be too complicated for the retailer to sell, they don’t have the time or the personnel to explain things to their customers.”– owner of a gift company

And finally, what all of us in this business should be pondering pretty much all of the time…

“The question is: what are we going to put in the window next time that will bring people in? THAT is what we are searching for.”– a licensing director

Atlanta: Land of Opportunity, or What’s Yours Is Mine…

Find a bunch of timeworn phrases on the internet, stencil them onto all shapes and sizes of wall plaques (wood, metal, burlap, ceramic or what have you), then maybe add a few chevrons and anchors here and there. Multiply that by a few hundred companies, some indistinguishable from others, and you’ve got the recent Atlanta gift market.


Obviously there might be a few additional items to be found among the 7 million square feet of showrooms, but the place is overrun with words on walls. It just can’t last, people, so if you are working on yet another “words on walls” project you may want to ponder how yours will be noticeably new and different, or even head in a different direction. IMHO.

We spent 3 long days covering A LOT of those 7M square feet. The doom and gloom of Dallas (see the previous post) was not so evident in Atlanta, perhaps because it’s a better show even on its down days, but traffic was definitely slow. We found ourselves alone on elevators in the gift building four different times, and that’s notable because it NEVER happens, normally you can barely get on them at all (and these are big elevators). Easy parking in the ramps, empty corridors and escalators, no lines in the ladies room, leftover free lunch in the showrooms and Market Clubs – all are reliable signs that the retailers went missing. And as always, clients were having varied results – some reported good business, some not so good, but most landed on “it’s OK”. That was definitely the word of the week: Okay.

 The move into accessories by the gift companies has not only continued but expanded into apparel products. Seems like everybody has sparkly stuff, and now some of them are showing jackets and tops too. It also seems like celebrity licensing has lost its luster – whereas the last few years had us tripping over appearance announcements on easels and shaking our heads over weird product endorsement combos, this year most of that was conspicuously absent. (And, as in Dallas, Duck Dynasty is pretty much nowhere to be found). Perhaps we’ll be heading back to good design and quality product ideas again? What a novel idea…

One disconcerting trend is the increased number of “me too” collections found throughout the Mart. It has always been routine for companies to produce a line similar to what is successful at other companies, but we spotted many that were SO close we had to go examine them for artist credit. (Which is not there of course…). Bad news for all concerned but there just is not much remarkable among the new intros, so they are resorting to what has been proven elsewhere. The good news for designers, as I have said before, is that there is a BIG deficit in the market – the opportunities for fresh, original thinking partnered with market-wise execution are huge. Put your thinking caps on.
People tend to try and judge a show as either good or bad, while in reality they are ALL good to some degree. Stuff gets sold and shipped out to the stores, and we get to talk with clients, see loads of new product and stimulate our idea machine just by attending, so it’s always worthwhile. The market may have been a little quiet for the showrooms, however we came back from this trip buzzing with what-ifs, and now is the time to set those ideas down on paper and start work. January will be here before we know it!