Iconic Los Angeles-based fashion retailer Kitson recently closed its (many) doors -- well, most of them. Did it grow too big, too fast? Maybe, but the social media, marketing, and crossover product lessons it gave gift and novelties retailers remain invaluable.  

Kitschy, tacky, and gimmicky (read: lucrative) items are flooding customers’ social media channels, redefining a whole new category of gift items, stocking stuffers, and even office novelties.

Gifts and Novelties: A $17 Billion Industry in 2016

According to Statista, the U.S. gift, novelty, and souvenir store industry includes about 30,000 stores with combined projected annual revenue of about $17 billion in 2016 -- with no signs of slowing. This is the ideal category of product for every shop to carry.

Gifts and novelties have made their way into every part of consumer culture, with blockbusters like Star Wars and The Lego Movie fueling a market among all ages (Star Wars toys alone generated $700 million in sales in 2015), and pet gifts leading a whole new category. (Statista projects the market for pet gifts to be more than $25 billion -- for Valentine's Day alone!)

It’s even become a huge trend in the upper echelons of designer goods, with everything from Fendi’s “Karlito” fox fur charm to Moschino phone cases (most famously the one inspired by a pack of French Fries). Retail and fashion website The Business Of Fashion recently focused on the business of luxury tchotchkes in a piece called “Small Items, Big Business.” Big business, indeed!

So what should you carry in your gift and novelties shop? And what’s the best way to get the word out?

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The Players

We checked in with the coolest gift and novelties retailers on the planet -- including Fancy, Earthbound Trading, and Flying Tiger -- to see which products are trending and what marketing tactics they use to get products flying off the shelves.

kitson closing

First, we must pay homage to Kitson, the mecca of cool threads for socialites and celebrities in the ‘00s. The LA-based store (which eventually became a chain with 17 locations) was an iconic destination -- so much so that news of its namesake closing in December 2015 sent shockwaves through social media. The resurrection of its flagship Los Angeles store as Kitross on Robertson Bvld., now backed by British retailer Spencer, proves the enduring impact it has had on kitsch culture -- but there are other things we can learn from Kitson's successes and failures.

The Business of Gift and Novelties Products

Newer industry leaders in the “cool gift and novelties item” market, such as Fancy, a curated social shopping platform for quirky gifts and accessories, and even relative newcomers to the U.S. scene, like Danish-based Flying Tiger, are making their mark. Earthbound Trading adds a dash of elegance to the visual content on their site and social media channels.

Let’s take a look at which products are taking the novelties world by storm.

Top Gift and Novelties Products in 2016-17

1) Cards, Mugs, T-shirts, and Pillows

Easy/versatile gifts featuring cheeky and irreverent commentary serve as the ultimate backdrop for the kind of bold and quirky graphics made popular on Instagram.

Between trending sayings (e.g., “I woke up like this”) and hashtags (#squadgoals) to image-based memes that go viral, we all speak the same social language -- especially during an election year with colorful candidates. From Donald Trump bobbleheads to Hillary Clinton's Woman Card, political retail is big business.

So if you’re eyeing a mug that proclaims your status as a Kendall (while your bestie is “So Kylie”), you’re obviously savvy enough to seek out the perfect mug to show off in a selfie situation. (More on that later.)

2) Emoji are Everything

The Oxford Dictionaries “Word” of the Year in 2015 was the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji (the visual incarnation of “LOL”), so it should come as no surprise that emoji have had a huge influence on product trends.

After all, emoji speak louder than words, and in every language. Social media is fast and global, and every new emoji is quickly interpreted and expressed. Many novelty products feed off this trend with socks, phone cases, and stickers. I even spotted a “Pile of Poo” emoji pillow. And I love it. True story.

3) “Staying In” Gear & Props

It’s the “Netflix & Chill” era -- and we’re just living in it. Maybe the days of FOMO (i.e., “Fear of Missing Out”) are over, as it seems there’s a definite shift towards time at home, binge-watching Netflix, and playing Cards Against Humanity with friends. As a result, gear and accessories for staying in are currently trending.

And with the holiday release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s a renewed interest in the force of the Jedi. As a result, it’s important to have Star Wars products for all ages.

The Secret to Success: Follow the Good Old-Fashioned Marketing Rules

While social media is crucial, word-of-mouth marketing is still very important, especially when you’re running a local brick-and-mortar store.

Independent boutiques are also making their mark in the gift and novelties area. Indie shop Jack & Jill, based in Montreal, Canada, has been open for over 70 years and has become the go-to spot for gift and novelties items, accessories, and apparel.

We spoke with Jack & Jill owner Barbara Vininsky about the secrets to her boutique’s success and how she stays relevant to her customers.

Her #1 most important trick of the trade: listen to customer feedback. When her customers ask for specific items, she listens and is able to recognize the need for certain items. She also listens to her vendors, with whom she’s established trusting rapports. For instance, if they tell her that a certain item will be popular, she pays attention, because they’ve never steered her in the wrong direction.

Social Media: An Influential Gift and Novelties Promotional Tool

Here’s something about social media that’s worth noting: like it or not, Instagram and Snapchat are influencing these trends, and even more so because gift and novelties products have become “Instagram props,” which are being used to complement Instagram photo layouts. For example, shots of an “Office Desk Situation” (a desk decorated with quirky novelty items) are highly popular on Instagram -- and make the perfect backdrop for a kitschy mug, desk gnome, or Homer Simpson stapler.

gift novelty trends

The popularity of movements like “Movember” on social media and IRL (i.e., “In Real Life”) has made the mustache a ubiquitous trend.

So how are some of the best gift and novelties stores winning at the social game? Get the status right here:

1) Make Sure Your Instagram Feed Reflects Your Brand’s Personality

It’s all about the perfect blend of quirky product photography, funny phrases & quotations, celebrity content, and user-generated content.

Instagram has been called “Facebook’s VIP Room” -- the channel where users can peek inside the behind-the-scenes action of their favorite brands and where inspiration is sought on a daily basis, several times per day.

It’s also the channel where brands can successfully leverage a user-generated content strategy, a marketing play at which Kitson was incredibly strong. Encourage fans to take selfies using a designated branded hashtag: Instagram is the perfect playground for these images, and where millennials (and some of their Gen X parents) can be found. Be sure to mix up your user-generated pics with branded ones.

According to Sprout Social, 53% of Instagram’s 200 million active users are between the ages of 18 and 29.

Speaking of product mix, Flying Tiger does a great job of featuring funny, design-forward products on Instagram at a great price for their customers.

Fancy, the world's social shopping platform where you can discover amazing things curated by a global community, has amassed a highly engaged Instagram following of over 280,000 fans. Using simple captions along with product photos of its innovative yet idiosyncratic products, Instagram is the perfect place to get daily inspiration for gift-giving and self-giving (users tag their friends in photos as a “hint” that they want particular gifts).

Instagram has also proven to be important to independent boutique owners like Vininsky, who posts pics of new arrivals as well as restocked items on Jack & Jill’s feed. Seeing images of emoji pillows or the latest “must-have” novelty item is what drives customers to the store. Vininsky recognizes the importance of these items as “impulse buys” -- they’re fun and easy purchases that attract people to the store, but then they leave with higher-ticket items like apparel.

2) Engage on Twitter

engage on twitterTwitter is an “easy win” for engagement and serves as an important customer service channel.

Twitter is a key channel when you have an online shopping component to your business, as it’s the ideal platform for customer service issues. It’s also a fun and easy way to engage with your social audience, by tweeting new arrivals and promos. With the right Twitter strategy, you can build momentum and a social following by engaging with the right influencers, bloggers, and media.

Retweet, tweet @, and leverage the right trending hashtags to help you do so. I mean, how can you not tweet about #NationalTacoDay or #NationalCatDay? These are easy ways to latch onto a trending topic and join the conversation.

A note about Twitter: if you have a Twitter account, make sure you nurture it by responding to @ mentions, “liking” tweets and retweeting when necessary. It's crucial to reply, especially if customers are tweeting about any customer service issues.

Fancy is very strong on Twitter, with a following of about 132,000. It makes a point of retweeting @fancy mentions, which is an easy way to help its sellers and in turn boost their audiences.

3) Leverage Pinterest for Product & Mood Boards

Pinterest is an important strategy for gift shops to explore because its audience is consistently doing online research for gift ideas and décor. It’s an easy and highly visual channel to help promote gift and novelties items. Earthbound Trading Co., for example, boasts a strong Pinterest following and is the perfect source of “pin-worthy” products. Pinterest users have very high intent to purchase -- so you’d better get started if you haven’t already.

4) Try Snapchat (If You Can!)

Fancy has made the move to Snapchat, which is the ideal place to build your brand voice and personality and give it a “behind-the-scenes” exclusive touch. According to Forbes, Snapchat is also known as “the social hub of millennials,” with a user base of more than 60% millennials.

The Takeaway

If you’re having fun, your customers will have fun, too. At the end of the day, gift and novelties items should call for a dynamic and cheeky strategy, while still maintaining a certain aesthetic (Fancy is the paradigm).

The retailers featured here have an amazing feel for what’s trending at scale and on their digital channels, so take cues from them about the right product mix and social media strategy. Also, don’t forget what makes your store unique and apply everything you’ve learned to your own shop.


Contributed by Karin Eldor.

Editor's note: They say all good things must come to an end, but we were pleasantly surprised to have Kitson (mostly) prove this adage wrong. Now owned by British retailer Spencer's, the celebrity-driven purveyor of kitsch plans to reopen in Los Angeles as early as next month. Rebranded as Kitross (a play on the name of founder Fraser Kitson Ross), the store will resume its place on Robertson Bvld. with a focus on "take and go" items and local designers. Welcome back, Kitson.