by Alex Palmer | April 02, 2015
The Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) has released its list of 10 trends to watch in the area of gift cards and merchandise, with an improving economy and evolving technology having some of the greatest impact on the direction of these incentive product categories. Drawing on its own industry research and surveys, the research group concluded that experiential programs, wellness, and "limited luxury" would shape merchandise and gift cards this year.

On the technology front, the expansion of apps, embraced by the 4.6 million smartphone users in the world, would lead to further innovation in which merchandise would be at the center. IRF President Melissa Van Dyke, the author of the report, pointed to the app-enabled wearables market as an area of particular growth, with everything from vests to socks to goggles being produced and providing potential for workplace incentives.

Speaking of mobile, "Mobile Proliferation" was also cited as a trend shaping incentive rewards. With mobile technology evolving fast, this is not only shaping the available apps, but how incentive providers are communicating with program participants. "For incentive providers and program owners, this raises the likelihood that all program communications will not just need to be available on mobile devices, but will need to be configured across multiple platforms," writes Van Dyke. 

Beyond technology, IRF expect the healing economy to shape merchandise and gift cards this year. The most recent Pulse Study found that more than half of planners are budgeting more than $100 per person in their programs, with 40 percent of program owners expecting to increase budget. Likewise, the impact of the recession is tapering off, with expectations of the economy's impact on gift card and merchandise sectors on the rise.

"The recovery was swifter in the gift card and merchandise side of the market compared to other sides of the market such as travel," notes Van Dyke. "Both the relative long-term buoyancy and the overall current positive state bode well for merchandise and non-cash reward programs in 2015.

The full list of top trends is as follows:
1. Positive Impacts on Program Design. 
2. Budgets Trending Up.  
3. Experiences Lead The Way. 
4. Limited Luxury.
5. An App IN Everything. 
6. Wellness Is A Booming Industry. 
7. Disruption As A Constant State.
8. Mobile Proliferation.
9. CEOs Need To Attract And Retain Talent.
10. Answering "Engaged In What?". 

To read the full report, click here.