Feature Article - September/October 2009

Hot Merchandise Takes Center Stage

What's New & What's Hot in Incentive Merchandise

By Heather Burt Racansky


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n incentive program is only as good as the merchandise it offers as rewards. Today's average consumer, and therefore today's average incentive program participant, is accustomed to constant communication, constant access to the things he or she wants. The Internet is always open, not to mention 24-hour grocery stores, round-the-clock customer service—there are even some gyms open all through the night. People don't have to wait anymore. For anything. And that same principal is applied to all aspects of life, including incentive programs. That's why it is so important for incentive programs to be easily accessible, flexible and always evolving.

Technology has made it possible—and quite frankly, expected—for an incentive program's reward catalog to be up-to-date. Printed catalogs are nice, and they have their uses. For example, they might be useful for small, short, one-time programs like a sales contest. But for ongoing incentive programs, online catalogs are the norm. This gives program administrators the flexibility to add new products when they become available, or to remove back-ordered and discontinued items from the mix. A well-managed reward catalog gives participants the confidence to reach their goals, knowing they will be rewarded with a quality item when the time comes. Saving a few hundred trees in the process comes as yet another perk.

There are a number of reward categories that always do notoriously well. Electronics, for example, never go out of style, and there is always something bigger and better on the horizon. Constantly updated models and new features mean those in the tech-savvy crowd are constantly looking for replacement gadgets. Digital cameras, flat-panel televisions, and audio players and accessories have been go-to items for quite some time, and they remain top redeemers today.

The less-than-desirable economic climate has changed the way people spend their money, and also the way they utilize their incentive programs. This is reinforced by the growing trend in lifestyle-type rewards. People want to feel like they are squeezing every last drop out of the value of their dollar. This means that in addition to scrutinizing every purchase at retail, they are evaluating the best deals with incentives as well. Items that are needed—rather than frivolous trinkets—are becoming drastically more popular as participants are becoming more practical-minded. Home goods, power tools and outdoor equipment have been steadily gaining in popularity.

On the flip side, luxury items and personal accessories are not going away. Many incentive program participants continue to see rewards as just that—a reward. And, not to beat a dead horse, but the current economy has also played a part in this still-thriving trend. While many have cut spending on luxury items like jewelry, watches and designer handbags, redeeming for those same items has become a thriftier way to get the goods. And, when it comes down to it, an incentive program is designed to reward participants for achieving specific goals. Incentive gifts and rewards are meant to reinforce behavior, encouraging repeat performances. What better way to show appreciation for a job well done than with something the receiver wants, but would normally sacrifice for practicality?

The past year has changed how people spend, how they think—how they live. These changes, no matter how small, trickle into every aspect of life. What was normal then is not normal now. People want more for less—that's where incentives come into play. Incentives are that "more." They are the value-added.