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Personalization's Comeback Kid

Originally, we had the Greeks and their laurels, but for modern history the personalized awards business is a direct descendant of the trophy shop, which started as a section found in sporting goods stores. Bowling and golf were money-makers, but kids’ activities were a market of perpetual renewal.

Personalization's Comeback Kid

Youth Sports Awards Bounce Back After Getting Knocked Down―But Not Out―By the Pandemic

By Brian Stanley

(Originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Insights.)

Originally, we had the Greeks and their laurels, but for modern history the personalized awards business is a direct descendant of the trophy shop, which started as a section found in sporting goods stores. Bowling and golf were money-makers, but kids’ activities were a market of perpetual renewal.

But with the rise of corporate awards and sublimated T-shirts for each bridesmaid, the world has changed. Is it still possible and prudent to focus on the youth sports market, or does it remain a staple that few order but has to remain on the menu?

Even in “normal” times, retailers looking for a bigger market had some success pursuing “old-school” clients using catalogs and samples that might be preferred by these groups, like schools. Some growing personalization retailers don’t advertise or actively pursue traditional component trophy sales—or they use them to get a foot in the door with a school or park district to bolster selling a complete suite of personalized products or to create relationships that will potentially transfer to future sales from other arenas of the lives of grateful staff and parents.

When the pandemic temporarily ended youth sports in much of the U.S., it forced traditional vendors to pivot to other markets and suppliers to sit on their kids’ sports awards with hopes of selling inventory next year.

Jessica Anderson, of Trophies2Go in Renton, WA, finds it most efficient to group youth and adult sports and activities together. She estimates sports and activities make up half her sales, with corporate awards dominating the other half.

“We probably sell just as many adult sports trophies as youth sports trophies. Sports awards in general are strong. Sports and activity awards go to half adults, half youth,” Anderson said. “Youth awards remain stagnant. I see participation awards being out of vogue, but some parents do purchase for younger players as a kind of souvenir of the season. As kids get older, trophies become less important, unless it’s for a big accomplishment.”

terrence dehringTerry Dehring, owner of QuickTrophy in Marquette, MI, agreed, adding that other personalized team products have filled the gap created by trophies’ reduced numbers.

“Youth sports trophies dominated our sales for many years. Then there seemed to be a public backlash against youth sports trophies, and sales declined,” Dehring said “However, people still wanted to hand out something special at the end of the season, so we started selling more team swag like bag tags and patches. Recently though, it seems like youth trophies are making a comeback. It’s always difficult to predict what people will want in the future.”

Dehring thinks youth sports awards will always be popular, particularly for teams for children under 10 years old.

Anderson said her sports trophy orders are back to where they were before the pandemic, an d November 2021 sales surpassed November 2019. Dehring believes participation in youth sports will return to pre-pandemic levels—or surpass them—but not until this summer or a little later due to uncertainty around the Omicron variant.

“I believe trophy sales will come back at the same rate as participation in youth sports. 2022 should be better than 2021. And 2021 was better than 2020, for sure!” he said. “It all depends how COVID affects youth sports. If teams are allowed to form and games are allowed to be played, then it will be good for us. I thought things were getting back to normal during this past autumn season, but now with the variant, I’m not sure what the impact will be on the spring 2022 season.”

Meanwhile, everyone has to deal with supply issues.

“Just when I think things are getting better, we start to have problems getting basic items like wood bases or marble. With the consolidation in the top vendors over the past couple of decades, this has gotten really bad and will likely get worse,” Dehring said.

Anderson agrees that supply issues have been especially difficult. “One of our unique selling points is how quickly we can ship our awards to our customers, (but) supply issues have been awful, it’s currently our biggest challenge,” Anderson said. She said the problem is three-fold. First, vendors are frequently sold out. Secondly, when they can order product, shipping the product is delayed. When the order is finally ready, it still has to be shipped to the customer, which makes it subject to a further round of delay.

TROPHIES RETURN; GOLF SURGES

The pandemic canceled the industry’s biggest seasonal unveiling of products, the 2021 International Awards & Personalization Expo, which may have made it harder for retailers to tell what products would be available and what would resonate with their customers. Instead, they had to see which sports were still happening, what their clients asked for, and what was available to ship from suppliers.

“We are always looking out for the next thing, but small, inexpensive trophies continue to be popular,” Dehring said. “For a while there was a shift away from trophies to personalized gifts and swag for team members. We are still getting requests for personalized swag, but it seems like trophies are experiencing a resurgence of popularity.”

Anderson said golf “exploded” during the pandemic, as it was one of the few activities people were allowed to do. Golf is played outdoors and allows for social distancing.

“Our golf business was already strong, but I believe golf awards will just increase. Golf clubs, corporations, and community groups are constantly hosting golf tournaments. It can be a yearly member-guest event or a fundraiser for a charity. But they always need awards for the winners.

This is also a repeat customer, as most tournaments are an annual event,” she said.

Schools and tournaments remain perennial customers. Though setting up purchase orders can be frustrating, it can be worth the ongoing revenue.

“We build many tournament awards, mainly for local customers. This is where local retailers have the edge over internet companies. Larger tournament trophies are big, usually post trophies with figures on the top. These awards are bulky, hard to package and often times break during shipping. They are expensive to ship because of dimensional weight. If you can offer pickup or delivery of these large tournament trophies, you have an edge over ordering online,” Anderson said.

“Also, I have found that tournament customers want a special trophy that they repeat each year as a signature award for their specific event. Sometimes it’s hard to source this special trophy, but if you can, they will want to use it year after year and keep coming back to you,” she added.

Tracking Sports’ Recovery

An industry supplier’s take on awards sales tracks with retailers’ experiences

“2020 was a very hard year for anything sports-related and really through about February 2021,” said Scott Sletten, president and CEO of JDS Industries. “We saw a dramatic increase in sales starting about March and April (2021), when we got through that winter surge of COVID and most states started allowing sports and public events. We really saw a strong comeback in awards.

” Sales of youth sports awards, Sletten said, were back on track to where JDS expected them to be when we spoke with him in December.

“Overall, we’re still down from what 2019 was, but, honestly, there was a general trend down each year,” he explained. “By late spring to early summer, things were back to not far from where they should have been.

” Going forward, he hopes the recovery holds. Vaccinations for children could help increase sports enrollment and demand for awards, but a surge in COVID—including the Omicron variant—could be a setback.

“There are some limitations on spectators—wearing masks, this and that—but I don’t think right now there are a lot of sports not happening because of COVID,” he said, “but that’s certainly subject to change over this winter with Omicron.”

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