Businesses foresee a brisk demand for papal mementoes

Varied merchandise already on the way to stores and Internet

End Of A Papacy

April 02, 2005|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

As the faithful organized prayer groups for Pope John Paul II, some members of the business community took a different tack - perceiving a huge demand and the opportunity to fill it.

Catholic gift shops stocked up on CDs and DVD documentaries of the pope's life. Barnes & Noble Inc., the nation's top bookseller, sent messages to its stores about how to set up pope displays. And eBay aficionados quickly posted memorabilia of the pontiff for sale online.

"I think you'll see a lot of that, and a lot of things created overnight. You may even see infomercials pop up on television," said Alan Napleton, president of the Catholic Marketing Network, a nationwide association of Catholic bookstores and publishers.

"No one has been in the international spotlight more than the current Holy Father," said Napleton, who named his 10-year-old son John Paul after the pope. "I think you will see a tremendous interest in videotapes, CDs, books and pictures. He's enormously popular."

By yesterday, pope-related merchandise had already begun to move. Over the course of a few afternoon hours, a book by the pope, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, jumped 308 spots on Amazon.com, to 185th place from 493rd. At Catholic Corner Books and Gifts in Towson, co-owner Jim Flood said he had several requests from people wanting to buy photographs of the pope yesterday morning.

And in San Francisco, restaurant owner Joanna Dan has sold more servings of her "pineapple in red lemongrass soup" over the past few days than ever before; the pope sampled the soup - as it says on the menu at her restaurant, Angkor Wat - during a U.S. visit in the late 1980s. Some have urged Dan to mass market her soup to capitalize on the papal connection, but she can't bring herself to do it.

"I don't have that kind of thought and interest. I wasn't raised that way," the Cambodian native said yesterday. "It was just a special honor for our family to have that opportunity. I want to share it, but not exploit it."

Much has changed in commerce since the pope's election in 1978, with the mushrooming of chain stores, cable shopping channels and Internet trading. Today, so-called Christian retailing is estimated to be a nearly $4 billion industry, up from about $2.6 billion in 1990.

But satisfying the public's desire to bring something of the pope's life into their homes often requires a delicate marketing balance to keep the commercial from slipping into the crass. While many retailers made pope products more accessible yesterday, such as posting links directly to his books on their Web pages, some offered items of questionable taste.

On eBay, individuals sold photos of the pope with Princess Diana, along with counterfeit cash imprinted with Pope John Paul's likeness, wall clocks featuring his face and even two "Pope on a Rope" soaps.

"Unfortunately there are instances where people will take advantage of the situation. Certainly as consumers, we can make the decision not to shop with those merchants," said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, a trade group in Washington. "For the most part, I think retailers will be extremely sensitive to this."

Barnes and Noble sent messages to its stores yesterday, advising them that extra pope books were on order and giving them instructions on how to display in-stock books with one of three signs, reading "a lifetime remembered," "in the news" or "religion and inspiration."

"Whenever the life of a major public figure is in jeopardy, we anticipate the customer interest in coming in for things like that," said Bob Wierak, a Barnes and Noble vice president of merchandising. He also anticipated a flood of pope-related publishing, with "instant books" of commemorative photos appearing quickly as well as keepsake magazines - "within three days" - chronicling his life.

While many considered this a time to pause and reflect, few thought that there would be disruptions in business, like those that have followed the death of presidents and other leaders. The New York Stock Exchange, which shut down for Ronald Reagan's funeral in June, has no plans to interrupt trading, a spokeswoman said.

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