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Obama Still Moves the Merch


His approval rating is down, but tourists—and critics—are keeping his memorabilia market hot

Last January, fans of President Barack Obama swarmed the Inauguration Superstore in Washington, which obligingly ran 18 cash registers until midnight. Now the 6,000-square-foot shop, renamed Washington DC Souvenir Headquarters, makes do with piles of deeply discounted Obama T-shirts, two registers, and few customers. On a recent Monday, manager Aisha Williams started to blame the slow business on cold weather. Then she corrected herself: "Last year people were willing to freeze for Obama."

Few U.S. Presidents have inspired the fanatical admiration that Obama once did. And none save one, Ronald Reagan, saw his approval rating sink as low—to 49%, compared with Obama's 50%—by the end of his first year in office, according to Gallup. So while there are no reliable estimates of the exact size of the Obama memorabilia market, it's no surprise that sales of Obama gear, everything from clothing to condoms, have fallen significantly from a year ago. Yet veteran souvenir manufacturers and retailers say that, boosted by sales to foreigners and those with a fanatical dislike of the President, Obama swag continues to be a strong seller for souvenir vendors. The man still moves merch.

James Warlick, who owns Washington's two Political Americana souvenir shops, reports that Obama gear makes up 40% of his nearly $2 million in annual sales; since setting up shop in 1989, ephemera related to sitting Presidents has typically contributed 15% to 20% of sales. "Tourists from Germany, Australia, France, will come in and buy 10 of one thing to take back home," says Warlick. Lissa Ongman, 30, an American researcher of chimpanzees living in Côte d'Ivoire, recently stopped into Political Americana to pick up Obama stickers for her Ivorian staff. "They still love Obama," says Ongman.

Jane Crawford, owner of the 21-store America! chain of souvenir shops, says Obama memorabilia is outselling that of any other sitting President since she went into business in 1988. In her outlet in Washington Dulles International Airport's international terminal, the best-selling item is an Obama "Hope" T-shirt. But at Dulles' domestic terminals, her best seller is a T-shirt reading, "Don't Blame Me! I Voted For McCain & Palin!" At online retailer CafePress, which puts customers' own designs on T-shirts, mugs, and other gift items, some 43% of Obama-related sales are for anti-Obama trinkets.

The continuing boomlet is enough to keep New York-based wholesaler N.G. Slater generating a couple hundred dollars' worth of sales in Obama buttons a week, even though his political business generally disappears shortly after an election. "The only thing I can compare it to is JFK," says owner Robert Slater, whose father made buttons for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1936 reelection campaign. David Shaw, co-owner of novelty item designer Unemployed Philosophers Guild, reports sales of his Obama items (top seller: Obamamints, at $3 a tin) totaled $85,000 in the fourth quarter of 2009, compared with $90,000 during the same period in 2008.

The enduring appeal of Obama gear doesn't surprise William L. Bird Jr., the curator of the Politics & Reform Div. of the Smithsonian and collector of Obama memorabilia for the museum. Bird points out that the President is not only young and attractive but fits effortlessly into popular culture. "The fact you could have something like this," he says, waving a campaign button featuring Obama with teen pop star Hannah Montana as his running mate, "that's gold for a politician, and gold for guys selling stuff with his name on it."

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Helm is marketing editor for BusinessWeek in New York.

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