by Alex Palmer | October 01, 2012
Earbuds and other "small" electronics are big winners
While economic conditions have slowly improved, tight household budgets continue to play a role in the types of merchandise attracting incentive recipients. Housewares and electronics were the top choices for redemptions in 2012, with participants seeking out high-quality products that they might not otherwise splurge on.

While many merchandise items are attracting participants because of their practical value, product styles are also playing a role.

"It's the same products - the mixers, blenders, food processors - but you're seeing them come out with more colors and styles," says Rick Bowen,  merchandise manager for Hinda Incentives. He adds that retro orange, green, and blue  have been popular colors this year for appliances. Vacuums have been particularly strong for Hinda, something Bowen attributes partly to the fact that people would rather redeem for a vacuum as an incentive reward than pay for one out of their wallet.

Larisa Mendenhall, director of individual awards, for ITA Group, agrees that vacuums are big, especially Dyson's Animal Vacuum.

"Dyson is such a great product and anyone with a pet really takes an interest in it," says Mendenhall, adding that some top home-oriented products are not what might be expected. "We saw quite a few Brinkmann smokers that you can use to smoke meats in the backyard."

This interest in home goods parallels similar trends seen in the consumer market. IBM's recent "Benchmark Study" found that online sales of home goods were up 30 percent in July compared to 2011.

Of course, a bit of luxury is still a key motivator to many individuals, though even these may be combined with practicality as well.

"Movado sports watches are very big this year," says Mendenhall. "It's a combination of a reasonable price point and a top brand, but also a practical use."

The electronics category continues to excite participants as well. Tablets remain a favorite for their versatility and range of  price points.

"Apple continues to lead in tablets, but we've also seen an increase from Samsung Galaxy and Coby Kyros tablets, and Amazon's Kindle Fire as well," says Mark Hutchison, director of awards systems for Excellence in Motivation. "Depending on how many points they have, [recipients] can get an iPad or four Kindles."

Bowen agrees that iPads hold by far the largest market share among his clients, but less than they had a previously, making up 70 percent of Hinda's tablet redemptions, compared with 85 percent last year.

Headphones also remain strong redeemers, particularly noise-canceling ones from brands like Sony and Bose. High-definition headphones are growing in popularity as well, particularly the stylish Beats by Dre set available from Rymax.

GPS systems also attract incentive recipients. "This year, it continues to be the Garmin navigational system," says Mendenhall. "Those portable systems come in really handy, even for work. If you're a salesperson who has to travel, you can take it with you in your vehicle."

Bowen is seeing significant redemption in TVs, especially 32-inch flat-screen models and 40- and 42-inch LED screens. He believes this will be a category to watch in the months ahead as 3D TVs are being produced by most of the major manufacturers, and Google TVs, which come equipped with software built into the set, have just begun to catch on.

While large A/V systems may seem like a splurge, even these expensive electronics can be seen as a home-oriented value option.

"Rather than go out, people are saying, 'let's create a real theater environment at home,'" says Hutchison.

While these trends focus on individual products and product categories, incentive merchandise experts urge program managers to keep the focus on the individual and the range of rewards available to him or to her, depending on personal interests.

"[Participants] are incented by their personal dreams, and that can be wildly different from one to the next," says Epley. "It's about taking care of myself, but at the same time taking care of those around me. Making everything you do your personal best - in your workout, career, home life, appearance. It's about living your best life that makes you feel genuinely good."

A few more top merchandise items this year:

Caravelle Charm Watch by Bulova
This new watch lets the wearer give the timepiece her personal touch, whether she chooses lavender beads with a dangling heart charm, black beads with an antique charm, or aqua beads and a crystal-set charm.  $149.99;

Tumi T-Tech Network
This expandable carry-on is designed especially for international travelers, and has numerous interior and exterior pockets for accessories and a section for suits. Like the rest of the Tumi T-Tech line, it is also made of durable and high-performance NXT nylon fabric.  $395;

Denon Cocoon Home iPod Speaker
With two-way, 25-watt speakers, touch-sensitive control buttons, and smooth curves, these speakers produce a high-quality, fun listening experience. Audio can be streamed directly from Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets. $599;

Fuji FinePix XP170 Digital Camera
Waterproof up to 33 feet, shockproof up to 6.5 feet, freezeproof down to 14 degrees, and even dustproof, this camera is ideal for recipients who are looking to head outdoors. Wireless image transfer easily uploads to Facebook or YouTube. $279.95;

Movado Men's ESQ Fusion 
This multi-eye watch comes with a 44-millimeter black ion-plated stainless-steel case, and a dial with applied gray Arabic numerals, with orange and white accents. It remains water resistant up to 96 feet.  $595;

Sony iPod/iPhone In-Ear Headphones
Offering top-notch audio quality that is not usually expected from in-ear headphones, these balanced armature earbuds deliver both crisp and powerful sound. The headphones also feature in-line iPod controls that let you adjust volume and answer calls without having to pick up the phone itself. $369;

Canon PowerShot SX160
For professional-quality photos taken from a compact camera, the PowerShot SX160 IS camera makes an ideal fit. It has a powerful 16x optical zoom, a 16-megapixel sensor and DIGIC 4 image processor, as well as a big three-inch LCD display.  $329.99;