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High-tech trend for promotional and thank-you gifts emerging

Over its history, National Awards has evolved from a company focused on school promotional products to “The Recognition Specialists,” as its tagline reads. Now, if a customer can imagine it, National Awards can deliver. It represents thousands of suppliers offering a seemingly endless list of products.

Awards and plaques continue to be a significant part of National Awards’ sales, but businesses are finding other products a good way to say thank you to employees and customers, and are choosing promotional and recognition items that are a departure from more conventional and traditional products.

Inventory, inventory

Jimmy Underwood has had a ringside seat to watch the evolution of not only National Awards, but also the recognition and promotional industry. Underwood worked for the company back when it was in the school promotional products business. (The school business is now carried by National Awards’ sister company, Jostens, which shares the facility on I-55 in Jackson with National Awards.) He came “off the road” in 1987 and to the National Awards’ Jackson office. Today, he serves as president of the company that employs approximately 30 workers and maintains offices in Jackson, Memphis and Oxford.

“We found our niche in recognition products, and have grown into a promotional products consultant,” says Underwood, a native of Forest and Millsaps College graduate.

Over his tenure at National Awards, Underwood has observed a shift in promotional and recognition products. Embossed pens and pencils, paper products and other traditional promotional items continue to be popular. But these as well as recognition items have “grown up” and have a new-millennium feel.

Underwood says National Awards sees a steady stream of customers for such products as clocks and watches, bags, desk and pen and pencil sets and leather goods. Apparel, embossed and decorated with corporate logos, now makes up 30%-35% of industry sales, boosted by a growing golf industry customer base such as Ping and Callaway Golf.

However, Underwood says the items that are really starting to heat up are high-tech devices and gadgets. National Awards is seeing a growing demand for logo-embossed flash drives, USB ports and similar computer hardware.

It is not only the products that have changed at National Awards. Service has evolved, as well. Living up to its billing as promotional products consultant, the National Awards’ sales team is trained to assist customers in choosing the products that deliver the appropriate message to employees and/or customers within the businesses’ or organizations’ budget.

“It’s a common scenario — a business or group has a budget of $10 per product, but have no idea what they want,” Underwood says. “We often will design samples for them so they can get an idea of what the product will look like. Other times, the customer knows exactly what they want.”

Service does not end there. National Awards, which also provides on-site engraving, now offers warehousing, storing products for customers and tracking inventory for them. This “company store” service allows shoppers to go onto a business’ or organization’s Web site and order online. Invisible to buyers, the Web site actually links to National Awards’ warehouse. This frees the customer from having to store its embossed products and keep up with inventory and sales.

This is especially attractive to groups offering premium items. Premium items include such things as toasters given away by banks. Underwood says once a Mississippi casino decided to give away stuffed animals to its high-end players. Eight 18-wheelers arrived at National Awards full of thousands of stuffed animals.

Gift-giving season

Stuffed animals and other premium items may take up more and more of National Awards’ warehouse space and become more important to the company’s bottom line. Underwood says the company has recently focused on corporate gift giving during the holiday season, and those efforts are starting to show returns.

“We have recently put an emphasis on holiday gifts. We’re trying to grow in that area,” he says. “Things are really looking up there, and I think we’ll be up this holiday season. We’ve definitely seen an increase in sales in this area.”

Once again, Underwood says it is the extras that make a difference. For instance, National Awards does not just offer food items. It packages those items with such things as logo-embossed cutting boards, providing the buyer with a nicer present to give.

Donor recognition, products promoting employee retention and morale and other new areas have Underwood excited about National Awards’ future. He says the company, now a $5-million business, has exceeded expectations over its 20-plus-year history, and anticipates more growth in the coming years.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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