15 Aug 2014
Lifestyle Aspirations Not Functionality Key to Success in Gifts Sector
80 years ago most homes had only 100 items, now they have more than 10,000. Exhibitors and buyers at the Hong Kong Gifts and Premium Fair turned to the issue of just how to achieve true stand-out in such a packed sector.
Levitating water, bamboo radios and yo-yos made of coffee grounds were among the more innovative and entertaining new products that brightened up this year's HKTDC Hong Kong Gifts and Premium Fair. A lively event that attracted buyers from all over the world looking for the next big gift idea, it proved a huge and colourful marketplace, offering an immense variety of goods in this highly-competitive sector.
Already the largest event of its kind in the world, this year the show pulled out all the stops, with luxury gifts on display at the Boutique Deluxe, jewellery and precious metal or stone items in the Jewellery Galleria and a host of more budget-priced items also on offer. There were also 15 dedicated pavilions, representing territories from across Asia and beyond.
Highlighting the more serious issues affecting the industry were a number of seminars and workshops, conducted by several of the sector's luminaries. Among the speakers at one such seminar, Keeping Creativity Attuned to Trends – Innovative and Lifestyle Gifts on the Rise, was Patrick Ng, a Senior Buyer at City Super Limited. A psychology graduate and part of the first generation of what he termed Hong Kong's "dotcom doom", Ng switched to bricks 'n' mortar retailing in 2003. He now spends much of his time sourcing innovative items across the globe.
Opening his presentation, he stressed the notion that: "We live in a world of abundance." In support of this, he cited the fact that the number of household objects in a typical home have grown exponentially since the 1930s, a time when average house contained only 100 items. Nowadays, he said, that figure is likely to be closer to 10,000, with Asian homes having even more. Overall, Ng, said, contemporary Asian consumers are addicted to gadgets and charms.
Addressing the difference between culture and lifestyle and the impact this makes on consumption patterns, Ng outlined how many products – even those in the comparatively workaday stationery and cooking appliance sectors – have become ever more complicated. He said: "Basically, they still have the same functionality, but perhaps they are more efficient, are used differently, or have an extra application. Fundamentally, though, people are not just buying functionality, but rather a lifestyle. This is something that goes beyond the product."
Citing the example of masking tape – not an item in short supply at this year's Fair – Ng explained how one Japanese company, formerly a manufacturer of flypaper, had branched out into this particular sector, capitalising on the high quality of its adhesive. When a teacher complained about the lack of colours on offer, the company then started producing decorative tape. This simple object, Ng said, was thus transformed into a genuine lifestyle item, even inspiring a number of hobbyists to begin collecting the different varieties.
This transformational process summed up many of the offerings at the Fair, with designers and manufacturers essentially turning a range of "me-too" products – stationery, photo frames, mugs and flowerpots – into something individual. This process, inevitably, hugely boosted the desirability of such items.
According to James Shutt, a Product Manager with London-based RDP, a company that provides customisable gifts for many Hollywood studios and other major clients, there was currently far less "new stuff" than there was five years ago. For him, much of the current material on offer was "variations on a theme", old favourites with a "Mickey Mouse" spin.
Despite this, he maintained that the market remained dynamic, obliging him to stay abreast of the latest developments. One of his latest innovations was to provide branded power bank external smartphone batteries for journalists attending movie premieres. This, apparently, has eclipsed the previous practice of distributing themed USB drives.
Overall, Shutt believed the Fair remained a great place to establish relationships and work on producing innovative gifts with suppliers. He said: "It's a two-way process, it goes both ways, back and forth. Sometimes you propose an idea, sometimes they do. It's a collaborative process. It's not just about buying and selling."
The idea that giving gifts is "one of the tools between people with a connection" was the theme of a seminar hosted by Roger Shing, Corporate Director of Procurement for the Rosewood Hotel Group. Explaining his belief, he said: "Companies choose gifts for clients to introduce themselves, to act as a brand ambassador and to deliver a message. This adds value and creates a connection. It's a form of promotion that extends the relationship. Selecting a gift, then, is very important."
Among the key factors that Shing takes into account when purchasing corporate gifts are functionality, safety, price, cultural resonances, environmental credentials and creativity. Tellingly, these were clearly among the qualities that Aiia – a Ukraine "born and bred" company – brought to the table at the Fair.
Outlining the company's philosophy, Max Prudeus, Aiia's Head of Sales, said: "We are dreamers. We are in the business of corporate gifts, but aspiring toward contemporary art." Prudeus' patter, although clearly well-rehearsed, provided an apt introduction to the company's range of flexible silicone speakers (in bright primary colours) and compact Bluetooth speakers (with non-slip surfaces), as well as its selection of novel flash drives, key rings and retro touchscreen watches.
Though the company has been a mainstay of various tech/gadget publications and websites, it is currently focussing on the premium gift sector. Explaining its decision, Prudeus said: "Working in this sector tends to avoid the necessity of lines of credit. Retail involves more people and, thus, more headaches."
In another telling trend, Aiia was keen to emphasise its corporate responsibility, with a portion of its profits being donated to charity, believing this makes it stand out from its competitors, while making it more attractive to prospective customers who share its altruism. A similar concern was shown by Hong Kong-based Green & Associates.
Trading since 1994, the company specialises in photo frames and "trendy accessories", but has become a distinctly eco-friendly business over the past five years. It has also launched a subsidiary – Ooobject line - which specialises in wood, rubber and recycled products that are "gleaned, cleaned and regenerated".
Green's booth caused quite a stir with its biodegradable pottery and ceramic items, all recycled via a charcoal process. These included mugs made of 37% defective glass powder, plant pots made of calabashes or recycled paper, hangers made of recycled and treated felt carpet, and yo-yos made of coffee or tea grounds, apple pomace and even egg shells.
Reaction to the company's product line offered an interesting insight into the differing perception of buyers from a number of geographically separate markets. While mainland buyers were clearly bemused by back scrubbers made from recyclable materials, Japanese and European buyers were much more appreciative and willing to pay a premium.
The HKTDC Hong Kong Gifts and Premium Fair 2014 took place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre from 27-30 April 2014. It featured more than 4,500 exhibitors from 356 countries.
Jules Quartly, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong