by Leo Jakobson | October 11, 2016

INCENTIVE: What are the hot award categories?

GALLOWAY: TVs are still big. From an electronics standpoint, everyone's already got their mobile phone and their iPad. PCs are going away. It feels like the category is moving to the wearable side.

SLAVONIC: Health and wellness items seem to be popular right now -- things that can make the employee feel good, physically and mentally -- whether it's wearable technology, or even things like scales. That's one of the areas that we get a lot of requests for.

MACGREGOR: That wearable category, the Fitbit and Garmin activity trackers and those kinds of things, are absolutely one of our hottest merchandise items. GoPro action cameras are also big, and anything with a Bluetooth component. But our No. 1 redemption item continues to be movie tickets. It's experiential and inexpensive.

TRAPHAGEN: The new Polaroid cameras are interesting -- it's sort of a throwback, it's experiential. Instant-print cameras have become a huge hit with people who may not have ever seen them before. Clearly what you want to post on Instagram or Facebook you can still do with your phone camera.

 GALLOWAY: In one of our programs, the audience is predominantly Millennials -- they're retail sales associates. You would think electronics would be the top category for redemption in that program. It's near the top, but the top is actually home goods. They're starting out and they don't feel they can afford the Keurig coffee maker with their own dollars, but they're okay redeeming for it with their points.

THORNSBERRY: I would say that probably our top five most redeemed merchant-issued gift cards are in the home category. Lowe's is No. 1.

SLAVONIC: One of our suppliers that does safety items -- extinguishers and things like that -- is coming out with a line of connected home products because they're seeing a lot of traction in that area. We're starting to see some action in that area.

We're getting inquiries for drones. We've talked to some companies and they'll say they love them and then I've talked to some others who would say, "Ehh, not so much." If incentive participants who are not very accomplished at drones redeem a bunch of points for one and all they're doing is crashing it, then their reward experience isn't that hot.

KEVIN EDMUNDS: The thing about drones is that when the government comes down and makes laws and policies on it, you know it's going to be big. It already is big. We see people bring drones to our hotels every day. Sometimes you'll see two or three on the beach.

INCENTIVE: Are "merchandise bars" still growing more popular?
ROBINSON: We were in Hawaii and we had Maui Jim sunglasses there, and we also had Tommy Bahama -- they took one of the junior ballrooms, and went in and basically made a store. Attendees could go in and literally shop -- select a shirt or a dress or something for themselves. Of course, everything we put in there had a certain price point. That went over really well.

EDMUNDS: We all know Maui Jim and one of their biggest mantras is "the gifting experience." You have people on-site that do fittings and offer style advice. I think you're seeing that more and more now from other merchandise companies in the incentive world.

TRAPHAGEN: Now Revo sunglasses have added the give-back component: For every pair that you, the corporate buyer, purchases for your winners, they're giving "the gift of sight" to someone via a charity whose spokesman is the rock star Bono. There's a social component to your gift.

BRUZZESE: What we're seeing -- and we'll probably see this grow dramatically -- are custom individual experiences. We'll bring a group to the Armani store and do a dinner there, and the participants will all have a custom Armani shirt shipped to them.

INCENTIVE: What trends are you seeing in gift card awards?

THORNSBERRY: In the last year, 64 percent of consumers in the U.S. purchased at least one prepaid card product. It's really a booming business, and the more we see that in the consumer space, the more you will see it in the corporate space. Gift cards offer a lot of choice without a lot of the headaches that you see with fulfillment and delivery of merchandise, or the heavy planning around travel. It's an easy option for employers.

I would say about 75 percent of our card volume is for credit card, branded, "open loop" products usable anywhere. Generally, when you're selling to a corporate incentive client or a client doing a consumer promotion, they're going to want something that resonates with everyone.

 TRAPHAGEN: Gift card awards are definitely part of the mix. We counsel our customers to remember that how the award is presented and how it's leveraged as a recognition opportunity is still key to the recognition's impact on the employee. You're recognizing -- presumably -- targeted behaviors you'd like to see, and when you do see them, you're making that a moment of recognition. They're not simply distributed.

THORNSBERRY: The way that the card is presented also provides a lot of opportunities for the corporate client to brand -- the card carrier, the inserts, the envelope itself, and they often take advantage of that. When it's presented to the employee, you're reinforcing your brand, or the brand that the consumer bought from.

MACGREGOR: They're typically part of an overall award mix. Gift cards have a little more of a cash feeling, and if the experience is really what engages and creates the motivation, it'll be interesting to see how that reward mix shakes out as the demographics of our employee base shifts in the coming years.

In spot awards, it's that immediate gratification: "I see you doing something," "Your behavior is exemplary," "It's where we want to take the organization." That's how gift cards are used by most of our clients. The number of these awards given out was up 22 percent during this past fiscal year.

THORNSBERRY: Lots of manufacturers that we work with use them to give rebates to consumers. All of a sudden I'm getting this card and all these materials from this provider of my eyewear, for example, then I'm more apt to ask for that brand the next time I go to my provider, because I had some kind of affinity with that manufacturer or that brand. So that level of customization really does resonate.