State of Awards Industry

Copyright © 2005 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in May 2005, Volume 30, No. 11 of The Engravers Journal
Sparkling crystal has been around the awards industry and is still one of everyone’s favorite materials. Photo courtesy of SCT Crystal, South El Monte, CA.   Marble is another time-honored favorite. Photo courtesy of N & R International, Marietta, GA.

     The awards and recognition business is a $4 billion industry and one that’s showing regenerated signs of growth, as evidenced by continuing product developments and advancements in personalization technology. The recent years of a weak economy has certainly challenged R & I manufacturers, suppliers and retailers and now it’s time for them to shine once again.
    Times have certainly changed from the not-so-long-ago days when the standard award product was a metal trophy figure mounted on a base sporting a pantograph-engraved metal plate. In today’s marketplace, you can find unique and interesting award products made from high quality walnut, sparkling crystal, flawless acrylic, different types and colors of metal and stone, and striking products made from a combination of these materials. And, of course, personalizing these products in your shop has become easier and less labor-intensive than ever before.
    The last two years have brought about corporate downsizing, an occurrence that directly affected award programs. However, most experts in the industry see a change surfacing on the horizon. Suppliers are turning out more products and laser engraving continues to make personalizing those products a profitable venture. Here’s a look at some of the newest and most popular products available from leading suppliers in the industry, along with their views on the state of the marketplace and what lies ahead.
The new Art Glass series from Victory, Chicago, IL, represents a higher end award with colored glass pieces fused to a clear stand-up glass plaque.    

The Solid American walnut “door” plaques have been added to Victory’s line this year, providing an interesting twist to a standard wall plaque.

A Sample of the Latest & Greatest
    Victory, located in Chicago, IL, specializes in manufacturing “middle end” types of awards aimed primarily at the corporate market. “We don’t carry the real low-end and we don’t carry the real high-end,” explains Eric Priceman. Specialties include plaque plates (including brass and brass-plated steel), plaques made of out materials such as acrylic and walnut, stand-up awards made out of acrylic and glass, cups, bowls, trays, clocks, perpetual awards, etc.
    This year, Victory has introduced two new unique pieces, both of which were recently honored with ARA’s Best New Product Award. The Art Glass series represents a higher end award and consists of colored glass pieces fused to a clear stand-up glass plaque. Each plaque is made by hand so each piece is slightly different, making it a one-of-a-kind award with a sense of artistic flair.
    Solid American walnut “door” plaques have also been added to Victory’s line this year, providing an interesting twist to a standard wall plaque. These plaques have two doors on the front of them, which are attached with furniture hinges and can be opened with miniature door knobs. The attention-getting characteristic of this award is that the doors can be laser engraved and the area inside the doors can also be personalized with laser engraving or by attaching a plaque plate. The door plaques are available with or without a clock and make an excellent corporate award. “There’s room for a corporate logo or a specific message on the outside doors that would entice someone to open the doors to see what’s inside,” explains Plastic-Plus’ Michael Hicks, Plastic-Plus Awards, Charlottle, NC, a major distributor of Victory award products.
    Tropar Manufacturing Company, Florham Park, NJ, is another company that manufactures products that are well-suited for the corporate market. “Tropar is more about corporate and organizational recognition items, so a little bit higher-end. Plaques, clocks, desk sets, acrylics, gifts, we do all of those as long as they are engravable,” says Peter E. Ilaria.
    In addition to being a PDU distributor, Allen’s Trophies, Hattiesburg, MS, has its own line of award components and also manufactures a wide variety of pageant-type products, including crowns, tiaras, crown pins, scepters, ribbon sashes and other products used in pageants, parades, weddings and more. The company prides itself on high quality; for example, crowns are made with genuine Swarovski crystals or fine Austrian rhinestones. According to the company, over 3,000 crowns and related merchandise are manufactured each week and they also accept custom orders.
    Plastic-Plus Awards is a major awards supplier in the industry. As a distributor for major manufacturers, including PDU, Victory, Acrylic Idea Factory and IPI, the company’s product line covers everything from awards for sporting events to high-end corporate awards. For example, Plastic-Plus carries over 4,000 different award components, medals, ribbons, metal cups, a large selection of resin plaque mounts, a broad line of acrylics including different shapes and colors, a selection of premium American walnut plaques and sheet stock.
     Plastic-Plus recently introduced a new Victory sport resin that features curved victory wings with a generic sport in the center. These resins are painted to provide color and have great detail. “It’s a very modern design and it has really taken off and done very well for us,” says Michael Hicks. The company has also launched a special edition resin that features two figures on one base. “You can turn it in one direction or the other and see two different poses. So it’s a real good product for MVPs or special awards,” Hicks says.
    One of the company’s newer acrylic products is a carved star award featuring a dimensional star carved out of a piece of acrylic with a screened background. The Freedom edition has a red, white and blue screened background that provides a patriotic look. Also new is a black oak plaque. “It’s a black plaque but it has oak grains in it, providing a very subtle, nice look,” Hicks says.
    Tower Ribbons, Topeka, IN, manufactures award ribbons, rosettes, sashes and banners, and also sells trophy components and acrylic, glass and solid walnut awards. The company has recently added many new Bobblehead-action figures to its line, such as the new “Horses Rear,” and a new school schedule and roster ribbon.
    JDS Industries, Inc., Sioux Falls, SD, offers a full line of more than 6,000 items for the awards industry including acrylic, glass, medals, plastic trophy components and columns, resin awards and much more. Some examples include a large selection of plastic trophy figures designed in full color and a broad line of products specially designed for laser engraving, including a new line of genuine red alder picture frames and red alder plaques. JDS also offers several lines of glass awards, completed perpetual plaques, genuine walnut plaques, piano finish plaques, desk accessories, acrylic and much more for corporate awards.
    In 2005, JDS introduced more than 400 new products including a beautiful new plaque line called high gloss mahogany finish. Other new products include: all star resin figures, 50 JDS plastic figures, diamond hologram columns, round weighted plastic bases, Tip Top trophy bases, sublimatable mugs, glass and piano finish clocks, golden jewel glass, jade glass with a rosewood base, fusion glass, marbleized glass plaques, glass mirror plaques, mirage acrylics, midnight acrylics, majestic acrylic stars, acrylic crescents and shooting star acrylic plaques.
    JDS has also successfully experimented with combining different substrates. “The jade glass in rosewood piano base line and the glass and piano finish clocks line both create a stunningly beautiful look combining these two materials. JDS has also combined marble and glass in their fusion glass line,” says Mike May.

Tropar Manufacturing Company, Florham Park, NJ, manufactures products that are well-suited for the corporate market with higher-end items like plaques, clocks, desk sets, acrylics and gifts.  

What’s Selling?
    Clearly there are many, many award products to choose from, from trophy figures to high-end corporate awards. And, of course, trends come and trends go. What was really a hot seller yesterday isn’t necessarily the crème de la crème among today’s buyers. Take Bobblehead-action awards, for example. When they were first introduced, they caused an incredible stir in the marketplace—everyone wanted them. “We did tremendously well with that,” explains Michael Hicks. And although they remain a very popular and strong selling specialty product, it is difficult for any product to keep up with an initial “big bang” introduction like that, so their popularity has waned (although only somewhat).
    So what are the standout award products for 2005? Opinions vary, but on the corporate end, glass, acrylic and piano finish wood are top sellers right now, while resin awards are turning out good sales numbers for applications such as sporting events and other competitions.
    Michael Hicks, Plastic-Plus Awards, says that on the corporate side, plaques and acrylics continue to be favorite products. Another popular new product is plaques made from red alder, largely because this wood laser engraves very well, creating a very dark mark.
    “Glass has become very popular,” says Victory’s Eric Priceman. “For us, that’s the way the market has moved. People are looking for new mediums and there’s a certain perceived value to glass.”
    Peter E. Ilaria says that some of his company’s best sellers are those that combine different materials. “What I am seeing at Tropar is our acrylic line is doing extremely well. The thing that makes ours different from pretty much anything else on the market is that we use piano finish wood with gold metal accents and a piece of shaped acrylic inside,” he says. For example, the rosewood piano finish base and post with gold metal accents and jade acrylic upright has been a big seller for Tropar in 2005 as has the company’s walnut stained piano finish wood plaques that feature a simple but elegant black brass engraving plate. “The piano finish walnut is a nice upgrade to traditional walnut and has been very well received in the marketplace.” Ilaria adds that all of the company’s products are always gift boxed, an extra touch that really appeals to buyers.
    Mike May (JDS), Craig Miller (Tower Ribbons) and Michael Hicks (Plastic-Plus Awards) all believe that resin awards continue to be a very popular award option, as they have for the last few years. Hicks points out the versatility of the recently introduced resin “ovals.” “They can stand alone or you can use them as a plaque mount on a larger plaque or they can hang on a wall as a plaque. They are very versatile and have been real popular. Detail is what PDU is the best at, and that’s making the products look so realistic,” says Hicks.

Tower Ribbons, Topeka, IN, manufactures award ribbons, rosettes, sashes and banners, like this red, white and blue rosette. The golf associations of the world are always looking for exciting new awards like this one from American Acrylic Awards & Gifts Inc., Walnut, CA.   One of the standout award products for 2005 in the corporate arena is glass as shown in this beautiful example from Crystal by Design, Arcadia, CA.

So, How’s The Market?
    With all the talk about struggling economic times swirling around, what shape is the recognition marketplace actually in? It likely comes as no surprise that several factors have negatively affected the industry, especially in recent years. “We used to believe that a down economy didn’t affect the awards market, but it has these last couple of years,” says Craig Miller. On the flip side, though, new product introductions and the affordability and versatility of laser engraving have helped the market and are steering it toward greater profitability.
    One of the factors affecting the recognition industry in recent times is the fact that many businesses and organizations have had to cut costs wherever possible, and that usually means scaling back or even eliminating awards programs.
    “Overall I think that the market has held its own pretty well,” says Victory’s Priceman. “This certainly is not a record year by any stretch, but I think we have a good hand on the pulse of the market. I think the economy has definitely affected the corporate market in the sense that there’s been a lot of downsizing and there continues to be downsizing and when there are fewer people to be recognized, there are fewer people in the award pool so to speak.”
    Plastic-Plus’ Hicks agrees that this economizing has a direct impact on award sales. “As the budgets are cut from governments down to businesses, one of the first things to go sometimes is the awards and recognition programs. Either it’s decreased or it’s eliminated completely. That obviously has a big impact,” he says. “One of the biggest disappointments is that customers are forced to cut the program completely or reduce the budget. So you see them go from a high-end acrylic to a plaque, or if they were using plaques before, they will go to something else or cut out the award completely. And that’s been tough.”
    Another factor that has had a negative impact on the industry is the rising cost of raw materials. “One of the most significant things that has happened in the marketplace has been the increase in raw material costs,” says Plastic-Plus’ Hicks. “Raw material costs have gone up in every facet of our business from the metals to the plastic resin down to the gas prices that affect the fuel surcharges for the freight coming in and out. That’s something that every manufacturer and distributor has had to face and we are continuing to see some of that, although at a much slower pace. We are hoping that that will level out so we can spend less time with price increases and more time with marketing products.”
    Award buying ups and downs can also be somewhat “area-dependent.” Pete Allen (Allen’s Trophies) says that much of the award buying in the Hattiesburg area is associated with baseball or softball and while the sport remains very popular, many of the younger people who participate are currently serving in Iraq. “One friend of mine operates an eight-field softball complex and he’s only operating three fields this year,” Allen says.
    All, however, is not doom and gloom as the industry continues to rise to these challenges with innovative new products and advancements in technology. Laser engraving, for instance, has benefited the industry tremendously. Not only is it more affordable for retailers, it is a versatile (you can engrave many different materials) and user-friendly process, characteristics that can help cut down labor costs.
    Priceman believes that laser engraving has helped award dealers in many ways. “I think that simplicity is always the key. I think the average dealer would like to have as few employees as possible and turn out as much product as possible with minimal labor. Laser engraving has certainly afforded a portion of that and I think it’s going to continue. Today, two or three or four laser machines inside a trophy shop is fairly standard fare. Larger shops can have even more. It doesn’t take many operators to run these machines, so it’s driven people towards standup awards and plaque-type items.
    “The market that we serve, which is primarily the corporate market, has had quite a boom in recent years because of laser engraving,” Victory’s Priceman continues. “Laser engraving has offered smaller shops, for example smaller retail trophy shops, the ability to do things that they haven’t done in the past and personalize their products in ways that they haven’t done in the past. Their abilities match the types of products we sell so our market has expanded quite a bit.”
    Tropar’s Ilaria agrees that laser engraving has had a positive impact on the state of the awards industry, particularly when it comes to selling higher-end, corporate awards. “I have definitely seen an improvement since 2002. Business is much better,” he says.
    “We are seeing a lot of demand for that kind of product. It has just been very, very strong this year, stronger than I have ever seen it. I think most of that has to do with the fact that most dealers have laser engraving systems. The lasers are permeating the retail stores.”
    JDS’ Mike May also points out the positive benefits of laser engraving on the state of the industry. “Award retailers continue to move towards laser engraving and sublimation. Both processes offer strong benefits to the retailer. The appetite retailers have for a broad selection of components to use with these processes continues to grow,” he says.
Additional top sellers for 2005 are acrylic awards as seen in these examples from Acrylic Idea Factory, Norcross, GA. Combinations of materials like these crystal and stainless pieces from CIP Creation Corp., Irvine, CA, are always in demand.   JDS Industries, Inc., Sioux Falls, SD, offers more than 6,000 items including their new Tip Top trophy bases.

Getting Your Share
    In trying times, marketing becomes key to keeping your business profitable. Here, industry experts weigh in on key areas that dealers should focus on in order to successfully and profitably sell awards.
    “Quality for sure. Quality and design,” says Victory’s Eric Priceman. “Keep your assortment fresh. Make sure to add new products every year. The customer needs to see something new every time he walks into the store. But at the same time, you don’t want to offer too much because that can be confusing to the customer.”
    Priceman says that it’s important for dealers to realize that they don’t need to do everything themselves. If, for example, you can hire someone to take on some of the fabrication aspects of the business, that frees you up to go out and sell. “You can’t rely on business that’s been there in the past. You have to continue to sell. In times like these you have to work harder. Continue to plug and never stop selling,” he says.
    Tropar’s Ilaria says that good service and venturing into the corporate market are two key areas for retailers to focus on. “The thing that we see here is the constant need for same-day and next-day shipping. There’s a lot of pressure for super-fast delivery. It’s one of those catch-22 situations where if you don’t provide the service you don’t get the business, but if you do provide the service people just expect it every time they walk in,” he says.
    “The other thing that is happening in the marketplace is that there are several target markets for a dealer. They have local sports teams, sort of like the high volume trophy customers, whether its dance schools or recreation leagues. There’s a lot of competition for that low-end trophy business and it’s becoming more and more difficult for dealers to make an adequate profit in that market. It’s always been tough but it’s gotten tougher. More and more of your future is going to be based on getting the corporate and the organizational business, like the local Elks club. There are thousands of not-for-profit organizations that need awards too.”
    Pete Allen, Allen’s Trophies says the bottom line for a dealer is to focus on making a profit. “You have to watch your costs very closely so you can be priced competitively. The cost of plastic is going up because of the increase in the cost of oil. It takes about four pounds of oil to make one pound of plastic.” Likewise, he says it is important to safeguard yourself when it comes to payment from your customers. “I would suggest you get enough down with the order to at least pay for the components. At least cover your expenses up front.”
    Plastic-Plus’ Hicks interjects that customer service and on-time delivery are very important. “When the event is over, the awards don’t mean nearly as much as they would having them there the day of the presentation. And you will lose customers over that more than anything. Availability and consistent quality are also huge. Customers want someone they can rely on day in and day out.”
This unique, mystic Kurt McVay Glass art piece is handmade and is signed for authenticity. Photo courtesy of Pacesetter Awards.   Plastic-Plus Awards, Charlotte, NC, recently introduced another hot 2005 resin award; the sport resin features curved victory wings with a generic sport in the center.

Looking For a Supplier
    The relationship between an award supplier and an award dealer is crucial. You need to be able to rely on your supplier so that, in turn, your customers can rely on you. Here are some tips to consider next time you pick up your phone or sit at your computer to place an order for award products.
    “We try to design our products with our customers in mind so any feedback that they give us is a direction we try to move in,” says Victory’s Priceman. “Look for somebody that provides good quality, consistent quality and decent delivery.”
Tropar’s Ilaria explains that more and more retailers are initiating their own Web sites to speed along the ordering process and provide an instant “visual” for their customers. “With the time crunch that everyone is under, having something on line that people can look at can speed up the whole process. More and more dealers are putting up their own Web sites so they need assets from suppliers that can help them in creating a worthwhile Web site for their customers.”
    Hicks says that Plastic-Plus Awards’ ability to heavily stock eight different warehouses throughout most of the country is something many dealers have come to rely on because they can essentially use those locations as their own warehouses. Customers can essentially place orders up until 5:00 p.m. and the order will go out that day. “They can really rely on us for that and they don’t have to have much of their money tied up in inventory.” Hicks adds that this also affords retailers the ability to have access to a steady supply of in-stock products of consistent quality rather than waiting up to two months for an overseas shipment and then having to check everything over to make sure it is good quality. “This allows retailers to improve their service to their customers,” he says.
    Hicks also stresses the importance of communication between a supplier and a dealer, particularly during busy times like May and June when everyone is involved in taking orders and fulfilling them so there isn’t much time for extra checks. “Any questions that come up or problems that we see, we call the customer back right away.” Hicks says that customers appreciate calls in cases where a shipment might be slightly delayed or if the order is one or two pieces short because it can affect their business.
    Whatever supplier(s) you choose to do business with, be sure to take full advantage of their services. Be aware of what they have to offer and utilize their expertise and marketing help. See the sidebar accompanying this article for a list of marketing aids that many suppliers offer for your convenience.

An Industry on the Rise
    “I get the feeling that everyone is having a pretty good year. Business has been pretty good in the second quarter. A lot of people are relieved and happy that business is coming back,” says Tropar’s Ilaria, echoing the sentiments of most professionals in the industry.
    As the industry’s business climate continues to improve, be sure to look for new and interesting product introductions. For example: Victory has some new glass, wood and metal products in the works that will be introduced in mid-fall; Tropar introduces new products every January; and Plastic-Plus Awards experiences a big push to add new products in early spring, adding anywhere from 50 to 100 new items, and then again in fall.
    Although times have not necessarily been “cushy” in the awards industry recently, things are definitely looking up. There is an ongoing demand for recognition products in every facet of our lives—and you can provide them!