by Alex Palmer | October 02, 2014
This year's Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) Fall Pulse Survey paints an optimistic picture for merchandise and gift card incentive programs. Drawing on the responses of 284 incentive providers, suppliers, and corporate incentive travel buyers, the report finds a generally positive attitude about the impact of the economy and the growth of incentive budgets.

Overall, respondents are optimistic about the economy's likely impact on merchandise and non-cash incentive programs. Just 8 percent believe the economy will have a partially or significantly negative impact on merchandise programs -- the lowest percentage since IRF began its "Pulse Survey" in 2009. Almost half (48 percent) expect the economy to have a moderately (43 percent) or significantly (5 percent) positive impact on their merchandise program. This is consistent with last quarter, when 48 percent also expected some kind of positive impact from the economy.

As for the economy's impact on specific segments within the industry, Corporate (48.6 percent) and Third Party (48.9 percent) providers were more bullish than Suppliers, of whom only 41.6 percent expected the economy to have a significantly or moderately positive impact on their business.

The upswing in optimism about the economy among merchandise incentives providers has also led to some changes in their gift cards and merchandise programs. More than a fifth of respondents (21 percent) said they now include experiential elements -- such as spa and event tickets -- to their programs. Nearly as many (19 percent) have increased their use of debit and prepaid cards while 16 percent of respondents have boosted the value of merchandise awards, and the same percentage now include individual travel as a reward option.

A much smaller portion of respondents have cut back their gift card and merchandise programs, with 6 percent decreasing use of debit or prepaid cards and 4 percent decreasing the value of merchandise award value.

A similar dynamic is seen in anticipated changes to budgets of merchandise and gift card programs. While 45 percent expect their budgets to moderately increase, only 4 percent expect it to moderately decrease (49 percent expect it to remain unchanged).

As far as specific awards used within programs, electronics is the most popular category, used by 43 percent of respondents. This was followed by open cards, with 40 percent of respondents. Rounding out the top five categories were jewelry/watches (34 percent), housewares (31 percent), and clothing/apparel (31 percent). Additional popular merchandise types include golf items (30 percent), luggage (28 percent), office accessories (27 percent), and food (25 percent).

The full results of the IRF "Fall 2014 Pulse Survey" can be viewed here.