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Eco-friendly Craft Products Prove Key to Australian Gifts Market

More than in most countries, Australian consumers have a particular concern about the environmentally-friendly nature of any products they purchase, a lesson many exhibitors at this year's Reed Gift Fair in Melbourne were clearly well aware of.

Photo: Here be dragons: Australian giftware on show.
Here be dragons: Australian giftware on show.
Photo: Here be dragons: Australian giftware on show.
Here be dragons: Australian giftware on show.

While most exhibitors reported overall sales slightly down on last year, there was still a huge variety of merchandise proving popular at this years Reed Gift Fair in Melbourne. Among the items most in demand were natural artefacts, shells, exotic crafts and ritualistic cultural items – notably carved wooden heads from Indonesia. Nepalese bags and wind catchers also caught the attention of visiting buyers, although companies sporting 'Aussie-made' credentials enjoyed a clear advantage.

So-called 'affordable wall décor' also proved popular, with a number of stalls displaying lightweight and colourful prints. These embraced a range of themes, ranging from goofy-looking animals to tasteful pastoral scenes.

One New South Wales-based gift distributor, Independence Studios (IS), offers more than 4,000 products – both proprietary items and branded lines. The company seemed to have a hit on its hands with its new selection of Miracle Tattoos, far and away one of its most popular lines.

Ellie Dummett, the company's Sales Manager, said: "These Miracle Tattoos are all the rage. All you have to do is download the app from the Apple Store and then apply your tattoo of choice – such as a horse. Then you just look at the tattoo though your iPhone to reveal a dancing horse."

One of the other major brands that IS carries is its adorable range of soft toys, Bashful Bunnies, currently its top seller. According to Dummett, Tom Cruise's daughter owns a Bashful Bunny.

In what might just be the biggest thing since Play-Doh – the colourful modelling putty first launched in the 1950s – Sands Alive is a mini-sand pit for kids three-years-old and above. Looking and feeling just like real sand, it comes with its own little sand spades. With the product also available from IS, Dummett says: "It's even anti-bacterial so it's safe if the little ones eat it by mistake."

For something more at the tried-and-trusted end of the market, one Aussie souvenir company, New South Wales-based BGI, isn't just relying on stuffed koalas to make an impact. The company has expanded into Aussie-themed lucky charms and stylish leather wallets, all adorned with Australian dollar imprints.

Explaining its thinking, Michael Mao, a Sales Executive with the company, said: "People want light and cheap, especially if they have to take their purchases back overseas. Soft toys are our best sellers. Things like Australian-themed clocks are popular, but are sometimes too heavy, leading customers to look elsewhere."

Another item making a big comeback at the show was the iconic boomerang, but only after BGI had tweaked the manufacturing process. Mao said: "While Boomerangs are popular, recently the cost has been a deterrent to sales. Now we get them made in Indonesia, rather than Australia."

One of the most colourful and exotic stalls at the event came courtesy of Mandala Traders, a New South Wales distributor of novelty textile products. With the company currently sourcing most of its products from Nepal, its stall was something of an Aladdin's Cave, complete with elephant wind chimes, dream catchers and stunning aluminium and copper eye catchers adorning its walls.

Highlighting its most successful lines, Sunila Maharjan, Assistant Manager of the family-run, business, said: "Our biggest sellers are actually our felt wind catchers, which many people now use as Christmas decorations. Our most recent order, though, was for all-white felt wind chimes for use as wedding decorations."

The company also offers range of felt cushions, stools and cathouses, but remains cautious about just what it imports to Australia, a country renowned for its stringent customs regime. Maharjan said: "It can be a little tricky bringing stuff in from Nepal, especially if it's wood-based."

Photo: Handmade imports courtesy of Caravanserai.
Handmade imports courtesy of Caravanserai.
Photo: Handmade imports courtesy of Caravanserai.
Handmade imports courtesy of Caravanserai.
Photo: Independence Studios’ Miracle Tattoos.
Independence Studios' Miracle Tattoos.
Photo: Independence Studios’ Miracle Tattoos.
Independence Studios' Miracle Tattoos.

Another eye-catching stand was on offer from Jasnor, a Melbourne-based toys and gifts distributor. Its stand was dominated by its range of mean-yet-cute looking stuffed dragons, all available in a variety of colours and sizes. Nicole McIntyre, the company's Field Manager, said: "Our Grumpy Cat soft toys are a hit at the moment. As well as our dragons, all made by Nici, a German company.

"Any toys with a presence on television are always popular, especially those featured on ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] and, of course, anything by Disney. There's also been the new Paddington Bear movie, which has caused a big spike in sales for that particular brand."

For those looking for something a little more ghoulish, MDI, a Brisbane-based toy and general gift distributor, might prove a sound bet. The company wowed buyers with its range of Halloween-themed products, including blood-soaked skull mugs, zombie brains and skeleton-hand backscratchers.

Exhibitors that highlighted their Australian-owned-and-made credentials, of course, fared particularly well at the show. One such business was Buttonworks (Australia), a Victoria-based manufacturer. The company prides itself on having a distinctly high-end appeal, carrying a range of a tastefully created Aussie-themed wooden coasters, bookmarks and fridge magnets.

It sees this as creating a real point of difference with those souvenir providers serving the more clich?d end of the market, typically stuffed koalas and 'I Love Australia' T-shirts. The  company looks to offset some of the costs of producing in Australia by sourcing its wood locally, effectively taking any Australian customs tariffs out of the equation.

On company, chasing the sweet smell of success was Angel Aromatics, a New South Wales-based scent manufacturer. With all of its production handled within Australia, floral scents are now its speciality. Robert Terrone, the Founder of the business, said: "Our best-sellers are flower packs and scented flower petals. We used to sell them individually, but they can get damaged with too much handling as customers rummage for the best ones. Overall, this year's show has been a bit quieter than last year, but we've still generated lots of new customers."

Exhibitors offering natural and craft-themed products were highly in evidence at this year's show. One stallholder seeing the event as an unqualified success was Columbus Imports, purveyor of a wide selection of shells and other marine products. Cawley Jubb, a Buyer for the New South Wales-based company, said: "It's definitely busier than last year. Our biggest seller has been the coral – sourced in the Pacific Ocean, not the Barrier Reef." Jubb's emphasis is a sure sign of just how important environmental considerations are to many Australian buyers.

Presumably less environmentally-concerned, though, was Caravanserai, a New South Wales company looking to corner the market in ritualistic, voodoo and shaman-related craft products. Run by the husband-and-wife team of Endang and Ado Muhani, its range of furniture art and handmade objects extends to wooden heads from Indonesia and marble plates and pestles from India, as well as ornate shell mirror-holders from Bali.

Highlighting the company's bestsellers, Endang Muhani said: "Most popular this year are our Thai lady statues and elephants. Next year we are hoping to branch out in something quite different."

One company seemingly unaffected by any slight downturn was EwaterFeatures. The Queensland-based company offers an expansive range of water features for home, garden or office use. Especially popular are its 'natural' waterfalls and Buddha-themed offerings, with Owner Jack Chang saying: "It's been much busier than last year."

Perhaps predictably, exhibitors promoting sunglasses were also out in force. Alina Goberman, Owner of Melbourne-based Selco Imports, said: "While it's been a bit slower than last year, men's aviator shades have still been very popular. For ladies, tortoiseshell-patterned sunglasses are very definitely in."

By contrast, Melbourne-based PNC Import's stall featured a mixed bag of affordable wall art – the highlight of which was a gaudy frog playing a guitar on a stack of cushions – brightly-coloured storage boxes and clocks. Vicky Wang, the company's Representative at the event, said: "It's been a little quieter than last year, but our painted clocks have still been attracting a lot of interest."

Its clocks are true works of art, something of a cross between a painting and a timepiece. They range from mid-size to those large enough to grace a railway terminal. Overall, timepieces were well-represented at this year's show, with Sydney-based Aukos also reporting keen interest in its painted fob watches, which double as necklaces. Victoria's Allen Designs also did well with its fun selection of pendulum clocks.

Photo: Spooky stuff from MDI.
Spooky stuff from MDI.
Photo: Spooky stuff from MDI.
Spooky stuff from MDI.
Photo: Mandala Traders wind chime range.
Mandala Traders wind chime range.
Photo: Mandala Traders wind chime range.
Mandala Traders wind chime range.

The Reed Gift Fair was held from the 1-5 of August at both the Melbourne Exhibition Centre and the Royal Melbourne Showgrounds. The event played host to more 800 exhibitors. The next Reed Gift Fair will be held in Sydney from 19-22 September 2015.

Robert Blain, Special Correspondent, Melbourne

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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