2009 January New York Gift Show
NY Gift Show: Sunday
I stumbled out of a warm bed before the birds this Sunday to “commute” to the New York Gift Show held twice a year at the Jacob Javitz conference center. The trip felt strange on many levels. I am attending the George Little run gift fair as a “buyer” after so many years as a “seller” working for Found Objects, the special gift company I left corporate America to co-found in 1993.
RIP Found Objects
Found Objects, the B2C and B2B specialty gift company Janet McKean and I founded in 1993 is closed for four years now after a ten year run. Some remembered, most looked with blank stares when I mentioned Found Objects. Four years is a long time in gift business tumult. More than Found Objects is gone; the IDEA of product representation is disappearing. Sales representation companies such as Found Objects are disintegrating. Gift sales representation will go the way of travel agents, insurance agents and stockbrokers. The web is not kind to middlemen.
When we created Found Objects in 1993 business-to-business (B2B) features commanded our attention. We knew we could serve customers better online than at biannual gift shows with such high exhibit prices. Our 10 x 20 booth cost $10,000. Add shipping + travel and we spent $15,000 to $20,000 every show. If sales representation as a business is dying the large event gift show is not far behind.
RIP NY Gift Show
George Little puts on a good show. Their shows include organization, categorization and rules and regulations. In the 1990's, when Found Objects paid princely sums to connect with Buyers at shows in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Dallas, gift fairs were the best way to connect with many buyers simultaneously. Sounds like George Little is a middleman? You have good ears.
Drawn a line between the web’s elimination of middlemen and last of the great gift shows? You know where George and Little are headed. Evidence of coming extinction was all around Jacob Javitz today. My favorite example is a conversation with Giftware News. A small booth just outside the General Gift section had an older gentleman sitting behind hundreds of copies of Giftware News. I asked if he would trade a blog reference for a copy of his magazine.
“You have to subscribe to get a copy,” the Giftware News man said.
“So you aren’t willing to trade a link from my blog for a copy?”
“No, the magazine has everything you need, but no you have to subscribe,” the man said dismissively as I left. I gave them a link anyway in the hopes they will learn how things work now (share and win, horde and die). I read 2% of the magazines I used to (like most of us I suspect). Pushing paper was a common show preoccupation. Web addresses were hard to find and few seemed to understand what to do with a web site.
Other ‘WE DON’T GET IT” examples:
- No Twitter Feed for the show posted large and in charge so a community could form. I was half tempted to create a feed for the show but have other fish to fry.
- Few URL’s in exhibitor’s booths but enough printed paper catalogs to choke a horse.
- Haven’t seen a booth about iPod or iPhone accessories yet (will look tomorrow), in fact, while everyone actively used cell phones all of the convention, finding ways to sell gifts on or about cell phones was no where to be seen. If there were few webs addresses there were no MOBI sites at all.
- No manufacturers pitching email newsletters as ways to keep in touch, learn about new products and provide input and feedback. In fact, 99% of the communication is uni-directional - they tell you how it is. Few opportunities to engage, interact and mold. Being pitched just makes me angry now. We interacted with thirty different companies and one made an informative, helpful presentation (more later).
- Accent On Design, once the most innovative area with the show's hardest admission’s criteria, looked old, stale and boring. How many puffy pillows, ceramics printed with Egyptian Scarabs and high design portfolio’s do we really need on the planet? Whatever that number is, we are there.
- Some talked the social responsibility talk but few walked the walk. It is not socially responsible to keep making DUMB stuff in STUPID ways. Your "organic" goods explained in a 300 page printed catalog means one eliminates the benefit of the other. I don't care how much post consumer waste content you use psychology is unchanged and still screaming inefficient consumption.
- Museum Source, where Found Objects used to exhibit, was boring too. Q: What does it mean when the most innovative stuff is coming from publishers such as Chronicle and Phaidon (more about this later)? A: The gift business is in some serious deep kimchi baby.
- Museums, once a source of gift innovation, seem asleep. I spent half a day looking for a great art watch online about a week before the show. Projects was the best site I found. I met Projects owner Jack Markuse today and he is a dedicated man with great taste in watches. I am going to buy a Tibor Kalman watch I’ve been thinking about. Pulling my cell out to check the time is getting old (see the Tibor watch I plan to buy). Tibor’s watch is rebel statement more than functional time piece, but it works for me. I hope there is a future in the art watch business, and if watches have any future it is in watches as fashion, as wearable art more than functional things. Yes you can still check the time, but you wear a watch now almost exclusively as jewerly. Jack is a good guy who gets it and Projects is a good one-stop site for art watches. You can buy a Tibor watch other places, but they all buy from Jack. I like to deal with the source and, for art watches, Jack is the source.
I met brave Megan Auman putting her considerable design talent and a big check on the line to create cool laser cut steel magazine racks and foot stools, but innovation was missing from the gift show today. Hopefully we will find the elusive "cool" and "new" at the piers tomorrow. In years past, the piers attracted more cutting edge vendors. Start-ups often can't afford the main hall. Let’s hope that proves true tomorrow or innovation may be absent at the 2009 NY Gift Show.
Why everything is the same.
We use the same tools, read the same design books, see the same movies and instantly see innovation online. This is good news and bad news. Design quality of everything is higher than ten years ago (the last time I was at this show), but the effect of general improvement is a lessening of “high design”. If everyone can use Adobe Suites to copy a prevailing look and feel then NO ONE is designing worth a hoot. Everything is better and it is sad.
Two other trends struck me. One is everything is producible for almost nothing. I spoke with a skin care line willing to put my label on a line of products for less than $2,000. Seth Godin discusses effects of so much excess production capacity in The Purple Cow and other books. If you aren’t doing something cooler than the next guy DON’T DO IT. Another way to say this is if everyone has easy cheap access to everything NOTHING IS SPECIAL. Google + Laptop or Google + Cell Phone and easy cheap access to everything is attainable so very few things at this year's January Gift Show seemed special. If your gift isn't "purple enough" save your cash and don't produce it. How can you know? Put up a web site and ask for feedback. I promise a free link to any site built to help anyone understand if their new creation is purple enough.
We are de-leveraging our culture, planet and selves. You would never know it. The 2009 New York Gift Show was stuffed with old school goofy stupid STUFF. There are “green” gifts. I heard one salesman talking to a buyer about a “green” board game. What I didn’t see or feel was any understanding about what it means to do things differently – to BUY LESS, to WANT LESS. To only add special things that provide meaning and care into our lives in exchange for money. De-leveraging means our requirements as buyers are higher. We require connection, fun, meaning and care for any purchase. If your gift doesn't bring sustainable joy, magic and fun in greater amounts than its human and planet costs STOP MAKING IT or go broke.
Americans will never want nothing. It isn’t in our nature, our genes or our history. We can, at the snap of fingers, change 180 degrees. We switched factories almost overnight from sewing machines to tanks. We moved women from home to factory and men to war. We are about to “de-leverage” with typical American ferocity.
I know this de-leveraging truth because, like all of us, my house is underwater (when I buy you should be selling and vice versa), my 401K is down 30% and, for the good of my company, I haven't asked for a raise for two years. I turned fifty a year ago and instantly was tired of chasing my economic tail. Consumption as redemption can’t survive close inspection. The music stops, there is no chair and you don’t care because you’ve seen a greater truth by force or necessity.
WE DON”T NEED HALF OF THE CRAP WE BUY. We buy from muscle memory, psychological needs or because we are bored. Place paper thin rationale next to REAL COST and we will DO THE RIGHT THING. This is another magical cultural characteristic; we are powerful, creative and on a mission. We need fewer tanks, cars, sewing machines and everything else. What we need is innovation and creativity and those were in short supply at the Javitz today. We all heard the maxim "Innovate or die." In this case innovate or an industry, the gift business, may follow cars, travel agents and stock brokers into that good night.
Heading to the piers on Monday with high hopes. Will report back.