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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The holidays are a magical time for children, families, and retailers.

Retailers? Absolutely. The National Retail Federation
reports that 2019 U.S. holiday retail sales totaled $730.2 billion—a 4.1% increase over 2018.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Could Gift Sales in the Fourth Quarter Help Turn Around an Erratic 2020?

by: Julie Rogers

The holidays are a magical time for children, families, and retailers.

Retailers? Absolutely. The National Retail Federation
reports that 2019 U.S. holiday retail sales totaled $730.2 billion—a 4.1% increase over 2018.

That’s what makes the fourth quarter a season to be jolly for anyone who sells gifts.

For awards and personalization retailers, “the busy season” has long been an equivalent to other retailers’ fourthquarter holiday sales. Anyone who sold awards had all hands on deck during the spring busy season, working nights and weekends to fill orders for the end of the school year, the end of the winter sports season and the beginning of the spring season, and corporate year-end wrap-ups.

But 2020’s busy season was another casualty of COVID-19. In many states, quarantining and social distancing meant residents had to stay home. Gone were the endof- year awards ceremonies, the spring sports season and tournaments. This has been a harsh blow to businesses and the economy.

Some retailers were inundated with more business than they could handle, as grocery store shelves were emptied and Amazon abandoned its 2-day shipping promise and refused to accept new grocery delivery customers.

But most retailers, like the businesses that make up the Awards and Personalization Association, were hit with order cancelations, closure orders for nonessential businesses, and a lot of uncertainty. This quickly affected industry suppliers, as retailers stopped placing orders, canceled orders, or had no cash to pay for existing orders.

But our member businesses are run by a hardy bunch of businesspeople who promptly figured out new plans.


 sublimated water bottles

Engraved water bottle photo courtesy of JDS Industries

These tenacious retailers reopened as soon as permitted and reassessed the current sales environment. Then, they started selling new products, like banners celebrating students whose graduation ceremonies were canceled, acrylic barriers and custom masks to slow the virus’s spread, and fun gifts to lift spirits.

Gifts? Yes, gifts.

Retailers who already sold gifts began marketing products like shirts with quarantine-themed slogans, useful items corporations could send to employees who were working from home, and insulated cups that were especially handy as stopping for a drink got harder.

But what about the personalization retailers who really focused on awards? What were they supposed to do when awards sales paused? The answer: the same thing as retailers who offered new and different products to recover sales during the pandemic.

Gifts are a logical place to start. Though sales boom in the fourth quarter, gifts are sold throughout the year. They inspire purchases by local community members, online shoppers thousands of miles away, and businesses and organizations that look to show appreciation or inspire loyalty.

The numbers bear out retailers’ and suppliers’ efforts.

JDS Industries conducts surveys of their customers to judge the state of the industry. The most recent sales survey found “gifts and premiums continue to be the area that the highest percentage of people are reporting increases in.”

 sublimated coasters

Sublimated coasters photo courtesy of Jeanie Hatfield and the Trophy Shoppe

Even in the pandemic, gift sales did better than sports awards and trophies. For retailers responding to this year’s JDS survey regarding sales during the pandemic, 62% saw a decrease in the sales of gifts, premiums, incentives and promotional products, compared with 90% for trophies and sports awards.

In addition to helping to compensate for awards sales in 2020, gifts offer some stability throughout the year and an extra boost in the fourth quarter. Ideally, awards retailers would offer both gifts and awards to double their busy seasons and increase sales throughout the year.

 sublimated water bottle by trophy shoppe

Engraved tumbler photo courtesy of Jeanie Hatfield and the Trophy Shoppe

“Personalized gift sales make great add-on sales for existing awards customers and are a great way to add new customers who may eventually buy awards,” said Mike May, chief operations officer at JDS Industries and a past president of the Awards and Personalization Association. “Personalized gift sales can help offset the reduction most of us are seeing in awards sales. The events that prompt people to buy gifts for loved ones and friends still happen— birthdays, anniversaries, achievements, graduations, etc. During this time of uncertainty, many want to give gifts for these events that are more meaningful, and what better way than with a personalized gift? Personalized gifts are great for individuals and some may lead to corporate gift giving and larger quantities.”


Jeanie Hatfield, owner of The Trophy Shoppe in Racine, WI, made a new purchase at the 2020
International Awards & Personalization Expo in Las Vegas: “I fell in love with the Signature
Engraving Systems machine.”

She didn’t hesitate to buy the computerized engraving system, which was light years ahead of the old New Hermes engraving machine that had come with the shop. Signature Engraving Systems sent an employee to train Hatfield and her staff on the machine in the beginning of March—“right when they started banning things” due to COVID-19’s spread
in the United States.

personalized face masks 

Personalized mask photo courtesy of JDS Industries

“She made it here. She trained us,” Hatfield said. “Her flight on the way back was her and one guy. I was so fortunate we were able to squeeze in the training right before the pandemic.” That investment, made before anyone knew how the pandemic would affect the United States and its people and businesses, helped The Trophy Shoppe further diversify and offer a wider range of gifts.

“The whole gift line was due to the pandemic,” Hatfield said. “Without sports being played, we have not been selling trophies. I thought, let’s see if we can do some online sales and target giftware.”

“It’s really fun. I’m enjoying the giftware,” she said. “Things have been kind of getting better; I’ve been selling more of everything.”


Adding gifts—or beefing up your gift offerings and related marketing—doesn’t have to cost you anything. That makes gift sales a no-brainer. An entrepreneur opening up a personalized gift shop would need to pay for retail space, a website, personalization equipment, and more. Industry retailers already have that and the skills to personalize and sell.

“Operationally, personalized gifts are a natural fit to your awards offerings because you already have equipment to personalize them,” May said.

Thanks to industry suppliers who offer gifts—turn to the Product Feature on page 14 to see some examples—you can use trusted industry suppliers to provide the products you’ll sell to your customers.

Knowing that this might be a newer area for you, our industry suppliers go above and beyond to help you personalize and sell gifts.

sublimated coffee mug 

Sublimated mug photo courtesy of Jeanie Hatfiled and the Trophy Shoppe

For instance, Unisub—which distributes its sublimatible products through many Awards and Personalization Association suppliers— offers high-resolution product photos for marketing and templates and free graphics for use in design.

JDS also offers product images for use in print or digital advertising, May said, through Exavault and Dropbox. That means you can add these products to your website as online sales are getting an even bigger boost as a result of COVID-19 restrictions—without any outlay on your part.

If your website isn’t friendly to online shoppers yet, you can use suppliers’ retailer catalogs while you create an ecommerce site.

Retailer catalogs are supplied by suppliers for retailers’ use in selling to their customers. At JDS, there are retailer catalogs for virtually every gift line, enabling you to market only the gifts you want to personalize and sell. “The Premier line of retail sales catalogs are available in Laserable Gifts, Sublimatable Gifts, Polar Camel Drinkware and Laserable Leatherette catalogs. Each catalog has a corresponding website that you can link to as well,” May said.

Offerings like these mean that suppliers also can help you with your marketing efforts, further easing the transition to gift sales.


While gift sales might put you out of your comfort zone, “I cannot think of a reason a store would not try it,” May said.

 engraved pens

Engraved Pens photo courtesy of Jeanie Hatfield and the Trophy Shoppe

“The type of gifts and personalization you offer will depend on the equipment you have available to
you,” May said. He said some of the best-selling gift items from JDS’s lineup this year have been “personalized drinkware, lasered Leatherette, bamboo products, and sublimated gift items.”

The Trophy Shoppe, for instance, already had a sublimation system, so Hatfield began marketing sublimated gifts, like mugs, T-shirts, totebags, and more. “I’ve been making really neat coasters. They come with a little rack, and they’re just beautiful,” Hatfield said.

Her store also offers foiling and has foiled leather-look diploma holders for students graduating
in the pandemic.

The Trophy Shoppe even boasts a less common process: subsurface laser engraving (SSLE). This impressive personalization method “engraves” an image or text inside a substrate, like crystal or acrylic. The gift potential is huge with SSLE because a loved one’s photo inside a crystal is a higher-value keepsake than a framed photo.

The Trophy Shoppe’s new engraving system opened up new opportunities, too. “It’s helped a lot, along with the sublimation. I can do Yeti mugs, I can do glass. We had a wedding and I was able to do Mrs. and Mrs. on the glasses with the date on the bottom. I can even do pens,” she said.

She has seen growing business in engraving charms that customers bring in. “People really like to buy their own items and I’ll engrave them,” she said. That new offering comes with its own fear factor—fear that Hatfield might make an error on a customer’s expensive charm, but knowing that her sister has a buffer that can “erase” engraving errors offers her a safety net. She is even more pleased with her purchase of the Signature engraving system because it offers many holders so that she can accommodate virtually anything a customer brings in for engraving.

You may not have any new or rare processes, but you can offer gifts that customers want to buy as long as they know what you offer. Get the word out that you’re offering in-demand personalized gifts for the holidays and every other gift-giving occasion.

“We advertise in our local newspaper every week, and I always put in different pictures with our ad; I just switch out the pictures,” Hatfield said. “I’ll put in an ornament with my mom’s head on it and ‘Christmas 2020’ or whatever. I also advertise in my church bulletin.”

Hatfield also has put gifts front and center on her store’s website at Though online orders haven’t spiked yet, gift orders are coming in from local customers, giving staff a chance to impress them.

“We have crystal ornaments in different shapes to laser engrave. We do sublimated ornaments,” Hatfield said. “We’re definitely going to do a push for the holidays.”

You Don't Have to do it Alone

Need help creating an ecommerce site?
Awards and Personalization Association member and supporter NetSoft Studio ( is among suppliers who offer a turnkey solution for ecommerce—and the Netsoft site can be preloaded with thousands of popular industry products.

Need to outsource personalization of an order?
If you know a product would be a big hit in your area but don’t have the technology to offer it, check with your suppliers to see if you can outsource the personalization to them and whether it makes fiscal sense to do so.


Friday, November 27
Black Friday
The big kickoff to the holiday shopping season, this year’s Black Friday may be scaled down for the pandemic.

Saturday, November 28
Small Business Saturday
Emphasize supporting local businesses when you market this day to your customers.

Monday, November 30
Cyber Monday
Consumers have been conditioned to seek Internet deals on Cyber Monday; don’t disappoint them by not having your ecommerce ready to go.

Tuesday, December 1
Giving Tuesday
This one encourages donations to charities. If you planned to support a local charity this year, consider advertising donating a percentage of Giving Tuesday’s sales to that group.
Sunday, December 6

St. Nicholas Day
In some cultures, children get gifts from St. Nick on this day.

Thursday, December 10
Hanukkah begins
This 8-day Festival of Lights includes gift giving and plenty of opportunities for personalization.

Thursday, December 24
Christmas Eve
For some shoppers, this is a last-chance opportunity to shop for gifts for Christmas. You can open with some ready-togo gifts or, well in advance, advertise your last day to accept orders for personalization.

Friday, December 25
Hope for many personalized gifts and happy recipients!

Saturday, December 26
Kwanza begins
This celebration of African-American culture involves feasting and gift giving.

Thursday, December 31
New Year’s Eve
This isn’t usually a gift-giving occasion, but shoppers may be interested in personalized products to gladly show 2020 to the door.

Awards and Personalization Association

The Awards and Personalization Association is the organization for retailers and suppliers of personalized and customized items. By providing education, meetings, and access to a vibrant network of professionals, the Awards and Personalization Association is the one place to ensure the growth of your talent, your business, and your professional community.

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