by Agatha Gilmore | September 30, 2011

Current economic conditions continue to influence incentive participants’ choices this year, with many redeeming their points for merchandise for the home. Power tools, cookware, and vacuum cleaners are among popular choices. But incentive winners are targeting the higher-end, most-sought-after brand-name goods, experts say.

“People are using these items for home improvement, to enhance their homes,” says Mark Hutchison, director of client services at Dayton, OH-based Excellence in Motivation. “They may not care about the latest GPS, but they might want to get a nice coffeemaker. Whereas in the past, they may not have gone that route.”

Kristine Forret, individual awards supervisor at West Des Moines, IA-based ITAGroup, says kitchen products bearing celebrity labels or endorsements are particularly popular among redeemers.

“Lots of the top chefs have done nice jobs of coming out with their own lines, [such as] Rachael Ray and Paula Deen,” she says. “There’s something about the celebrity endorsement. It’s still the practical awards that people are selecting, but I think some of the brands have done nice jobs of making them fun and functional at the same time.”

Meanwhile, when it comes to the perennial favorite merchandise category, electronics, people are cashing in their points for smaller gadgets such as digital cameras, camcorders (especially those of the pocket variety), iPods, and Kindles. 

“While everybody may be looking at the absolute cheapest Kindle when using their own money, they’re okay spending a few extra [award] points to get the 32-gigabyte version instead of the 16-gigabyte. So it’s usually for those upgrades or those higher models that we see [people redeeming points],” Forret says.

And all experts agree that the market for tablets will heat up. “Tablets are going to increase [in popularity] as pricing comes down and as more and more features are added,” says Rick Bowen, assistant merchandising manager for Chicago-based Hinda Incentives.

Meanwhile, the trend in TVs is also moving toward smaller sizes—32 inches is a popular choice—while Internet connectivity remains more desirable than 3D technology. And folks are eagerly snapping up peripheral devices to accessorize and improve the products they already have, says Mike Donini, merchandise buyer for St. Louis-based Maritz. For example, rather than purchase a new TV with Internet connectivity, someone might redeem points for an Apple TV or a Google TV device, which “gives you the ability to get Internet content on your TV,” he says.

The following are just a few of the top merchandise choices this year.

Amazon Kindle 3G e-reader
With a new, high-contrast e-ink screen, today’s Kindle delivers 50 percent better contrast and crisper fonts for improved reading in all conditions, including bright sunshine. It can hold up to 3,500 books., starts at $139

Apple iPad 2 tablet computer
Tablets are here to stay, and incentive participants want a piece of the action. The Apple iPad revolutionized the market and is now in its second generation. There are a huge number of apps available for the sleek, user-friendly, 9.7-inch touch-screen device, which comes in 16-, 32-, and 64-gigabyte versions., $499 - $829

Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones
The next generation of Bose’s hugely popular noise-canceling headphones, the QuietComfort 15 shuts out even the roar of older airplanes while providing clean, rich sound. 

Bulova Ladies’ Precisionist watch
From the Precisionist Longwood Collection, this shimmering, diamond-encrusted timepiece is appropriate for winter with a multilayer mother-of-pearl dial, curved crystal, and luminous hands. It features a date calendar and is water resistant up to 30 meters. 

Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera
Perfect for photographers ready to make the move up to a digital SLR camera, Canon’s 18-megapixel unit has a dust- and weather-resistant body, an advanced image processor, 1080p full-HD video recording, and a three-inch swiveling LCD screen. 

Coby Snapp! camcorder
This pocket-sized camcorder shoots video, takes pictures, and plays back files on a 1.8-inch LCD screen. It has a built-in USB plug. 

LG 32LK330 high-definition television
With sharp, 720p high-definition resolution and a 60-hertz refresh rate, this 32-inch flat LCD TV boasts super-clear images. A sensor automatically adjusts the picture to lighting and color conditions in the room.  

Michael Kors Hamilton tote bag
Michael Kors’ Hamilton N/S tote is available in neutral glazed, crocodile-embossed leather. With both top handles and a shoulder strap, it can be carried in multiple ways and features protective metal feet for clean toting. 

Monster Beats by Dr. Dre mobile in-ear headphones
Specially engineered for dynamic sound with deep bass suited to today’s musical tastes, these ergonomic in-ear headphones feature a tangle-free cord and let users accept incoming calls via its built-in mic and answer/end control button. 

The North Face Apex Bionic jacket
When cold weather hits, this fleece-lined men’s shell keeps adventure-seekers warm, dry, and flexible with four-way stretch fabric., starts at $129

Google TV smart-television platform
Google TV turns a television into a giant computer for web surfing, video and music streaming, app use, and more. It’s built into Sony’s HD Internet TV and available in separate devices like the Logitech Revue., TVs $299.99 - $999.99;, Logitech Revue $99.99

Tumi Alpha Espresso luggage collection
Tumi’s newest collection takes its top-of-the-line Alpha FTX group of bags and carry-on luggage to a rich brown—a popular aesthetic in the past—with the addition of caramel-colored full-grain leather trim., pieces from $150 - $695

Weber Smokey Joe Silver charcoal grill
With a 14.5-inch cooking surface, this charcoal grill, described as a miniature take on the classic Weber grill, is easily portable for fun on the run. It features a porcelain-enamel finish that prevents rust, prolonging its life.