As a pointless exercise in self-flagellation, it's fun to look back and wonder how you should have invested your money in the last year. You'd have ditched stocks and bonds, of course, and you would have avoided real estate. And if you really had foresight, you would have bet the rent on Barack Obama baby bibs.
Or Barack Obama mugs, T-shirts, stationery, posters, postcards, notecards, aprons, coasters, dog jerseys, throw pillows and mouse pads. With so many segments of the economy in the fetal position, the Obama memorabilia business is one of the very few that is actually thriving.
In most election years, the candidate T-shirt and button market pretty much disappears after the ballots are counted. Not this time. Our next president has become a living, breathing stimulus package for a modest-size group of entrepreneurs who are slapping Obama's image on any surface it'll stick to. At CafePress.com there are 96,000 different Obama-related designs for sale, according to vice president of marketing Amy Maniatis. That includes a T-shirt that says "Now I don't have to move to Canada" and a poster that says "Once you go Barack, you'll never go back." All the designs come from "virtual shopkeepers," who upload images to the site and then sell them on any number of stock items, splitting the profits with CafePress.
"This is our third election, and for us, what we saw in 2000 and 2004 was really different," Maniatis says. "There was a lot of anti-Bush merchandise after those elections." Anti-Bush stuff sold so well for so many years that there was genuine concern at CafePress that the end of the president's second term would hurt the company's bottom line. ("Economists Warn Anti-Bush Merchandise Market Close to Collapse" read a recent headline in the Onion.) Instead, Obama love has more than offset the downturn.
At America!, the exuberantly punctuated chain of patriotically themed souvenir shops, they're moving a lot of life-size cardboard cutouts of Obama, at $42.99 each. (And by the way, all the McCain product -- half off.) Spokeswoman Donna Tsitsikaos sounds like a woman trying hard not to crow about sales numbers.
"Product is driving people to the stores," she says, "even in this economy."
Obamamania has been a boon for tiny Greenville, Ohio, the home of Tigereye Design, which manufactured and handled the fulfillment for official Obama campaign materials, such as shirts, hats and buttons. It also has its own site, DemocraticStuff.com, which peddles an astounding variety of niche Obama buttons, including "Beekeepers for Obama," "Emo for Obama" and "Ventriloquists for Obama." Tigereye started the year with a staff of 50, then just kept on hiring.
"We had about 500 people at the peak," says Steve Swallow, the company's president. "It really had an impact on our local workforce, because almost all of the people we hired were unemployed before. And it wasn't just us. If you call the post office here, I bet they'll say they never handled so much mail."
Wealth from Obamabilia is currently spread all over eBay, where a search using "Obama" yields more than 21,000 items, including a rhinestone tote bag, a glow-in-the-dark bottle stopper and a flip-top lighter. On Craigslist, there are Obama banks ($40 apiece), a bobblehead doll ($100) and a doll that sings and dances ($100).
There has even been some additional work for tattoo artists. Some people prefer their Obama souvenirs permanent.
"Right after the election, I had four ladies come in here together and say they wanted the Obama 'O,' " says Justin McCrocklin, who works at Tatu Tattoo in Chicago. "You know, the 'O' he used on the logo, with stars and stripes on it."
These women had worked on the campaign, they explained, and they wanted to remember the experience. For $70 per person, each now has a half-dollar-size forget-me-not on an ankle or forearm.
But no one has seized on the Obama keepsake market with quite the ambition of A.J. Khubani, the president of TeleBrands. The New Jersey company is best known for creating the "As Seen on TV" logo and selling items like the Flat Fold Colander, the Stick Up Bulb and the Pedi Paws, "the incredible nail trimming solution for dogs and cats." On election night, Khubani was watching the euphoria at his home in Saddle River, N.J., and thought, as he put it, "There has to be something we could sell."
By Wednesday morning, he'd hired an artist to design a commemorative plate, with Obama's face and some fireworks on the front, along with the inscription "Change Has Come" and on the back, the electoral count as of election night.
"We had an image in hand by Wednesday afternoon," says Khubani, "we had a prototype on Thursday, and the plates arrived at the shoot on Friday morning."
The commercial was edited over the weekend and went on the air a few days later.
"Yes you can . . . own a piece of history," booms a narrator in the ad, which can now be seen all over cable television, "with a bonus display stand and a certificate of authenticity, for $19.99."
Khubani expects big things from this tchotchke. He's ordering 1 million of them. Sadly, the manufacturing upsides of the "victory plate" won't be part of the Obama economic mini-surge here in the United States.
The plate is being made in China.
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008; C01