Selling Uncle Sam

July Fourth wares help fill a shopping lull

July 02, 2004|By Shruti Mathur | Shruti Mathur,SUN STAFF

Niko Bouloubassis and his 8-year-old daughter, Katie, weren't shopping for a red, white and blue dress when they visited the Avenue at White Marsh last week. But they were lured by Fourth of July promotions along the shopping strip.

"Sometimes it seems a little gimmicky," Bouloubassis said as he fumbled through racks of miniature-size patriotic overalls and skirts. "But then, hey, that's business."

Indeed. More and more patriotic products are being paraded out these days - everything from red, white and blue candy to flip-flops, jewelry and pet treats - as Independence Day has become an increasingly appealing opportunity for merchants.

Shopping choices geared to the Fourth have multiplied, in part, because of increasing consumer recognition of patriotic themes in the post-Sept. 11 era, in part, because of growing consumer affluence and because the traditional holiday break looms more attractively in an increasingly work-obsessed world.

"Any company that is not putting out Fourth of July merchandise is missing out," said Ellen Tolley, director of media relations for the National Retail Federation, which is predicting another year of increased sales of patriotic merchandise.

Retailers have long recognized the opportunity presented by the Fourth of July and worked to bolster shopping activity during what traditionally is a summer lull between Father's Day and back-to-school promotions.

Consumers traditionally spent money over the Fourth on picnics and flags. And leading card companies such as Hallmark and American Greetings have been selling patriotic-themed merchandise since World War I.

"During the 1990s, America really became a culture of workaholics, and it was a time of affluence," said Rachel Bolton, a Hallmark spokeswoman, adding that the company has since expanded its patriotic offerings to home decor and party wear. "The home really became a retreat and something to celebrate."

In recent years, the array of choices has grown to include Uncle Sam aprons, stars-and-stripes-covered tote bags and red, white and blue nasal strips, diapers and ketchup bottles. Even the family golden retriever can join in the food festivities with holiday-themed dog bones this year.

"Companies are looking for ways to stimulate sales, and this provides a wonderful opportunity," said Dale Achabal, a professor and director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University in California.

The National Retail Federation said last week that more than 49 million people across the country will go shopping this weekend - up slightly from last year. The group also noted that 53.1 percent of Americans said they own patriotic-themed apparel compared with 49.5 percent a year ago.

Shoppers like Tina Craig of Pikesville are exactly whom retailers are hoping to capture. Craig donned a flag-themed T-shirt and chatted excitedly about patriotic purses and nail decor at Towson Town Center last week. She said she loves "getting dressed up and celebrating the Fourth."

But the summer holiday isn't all roses for merchants.

"Retailers have been having to work harder to sell and to stand out in a cluttered market," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management near Chicago.

Target Corp. altered its Independence Day product line this year, using softer colors and giving products such as home decor and party items a "less gimmicky, and more upscale feel," a spokeswoman said. And clothing store Old Navy, which has sold flag T-shirts since the company's 1994 inception, has increased its assortment over the years to include visors and picture albums.

The extra marketing appears to be working.

Michelle Bogan, a merchandising specialist for the Atlanta-based retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates, says Independence Day sales have been growing strongly.

"We saw a big boom all across the retail industry," Bogan said. "Sales increased, as well as the amount of holiday products being purchased."

Sarah Bacharach, a sales representative at Papyrus, a card and gift shop in Towson Town Center, saw an increase in demand for Independence Day party invitations this year and began fielding requests as early as May. She noted that patriotic pinwheels also have been strong sellers this year.

Experts said smaller businesses also have taken advantage of technology that makes it easier and less expensive to package items in holiday wrappings.

Companies such as Shari's Berries International Inc. in Sacramento, Calif., began promoting chocolate-covered strawberries in 2001 that resembled the American flag. Sales rose 30 percent from the previous year in the week leading up to the holiday and have grown each year.

"We had been looking for things to fill up the summer from July to October, which was traditionally not a big gift-giving season," said Kevin Beresford, the company's president and chief executive officer.

Annette Blackman, assistant manager for Christopher & Banks in Towson Town Center, hopes the weekend will perk up sales of holiday-oriented apparel. A quarter of the women's clothing store is dedicated to red, white and blue-themed sweaters, skirts and Capri pants.

"We always carry something patriotic year-round," she said.

Holiday plans

Fourth of July plans among Americans:

122.6 million will have a cookout or picnic.

81.5 million will watch fireworks or attend a community celebration.

49.1 million will go shopping over the three-day weekend to take advantage of sales and discounts.

24.5 million plan to purchase patriotic merchandise this season.

20.4 million people will go out to see a parade.

19 million will travel or go on vacation over the weekend.

Source: National Retail Federation. The survey was conducted June 2-9 and polled 7,709 people. It has a margin of error of 1 percent.

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