Washington retailers are cashing in on Obamamania


WASHINGTON // Jim Warlick, 56, could retire right now, thanks to Barack Obama, the US president-elect.

Mr Warlick sells political memorabilia – including buttons, coins and T-shirts – at Political Americana, his store in Washington, DC.

Since Mr Obama won the race for the White House on Nov 4, related merchandise has been snapped up so quickly that Mr Warlick opened a second shop last month. He is also planning to open another five temporary stores in the weeks surrounding Mr Obama’s inauguration on Jan 20, an event that could draw several million people.

Mr Warlick is not alone. Mr Obama’s image has boosted merchandise sales for producers, suppliers and even inspired mom-and-pop shops to enter the world of politics for the first time.

“I’ve been in the business 28 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr Warlick said.

While he has thought about an easy retirement in the tropical Virgin Islands funded by Obama-driven sales, he said he loves the work too much to quit now.

In fact, thanks to the next president’s popularity overseas, Mr Warlick is even considering opening another store in Germany. At his Washington stores, he estimates foreigners buy about 20 per cent of his Obama merchandise, compared to five or 10 per cent for other US politicians. Once popular George W Bush merchandise, commemorating the outgoing US president, was already out of style by the time Mr Obama proved himself a serious contender for the presidency and started driving up Political Americana sales in the fall of 2007.

“For a couple of years we’ve been selling more anti-Bush items than pro-Bush,” Mr Warlick said.

These days, people who buy pro-Bush buttons put them in their pocket, while people who buy anti-Bush buttons often pin them on their jacket right away, he said.

Mr Warlick has about 50,000 pro-Bush buttons in storage along with other leftover Bush merchandise.

“Maybe one day down the road collectors will buy it. Or maybe when he opens the Bush library we can sell it to them … or we may just give it to them.”

Political Americana has a tradition of predicting presidential elections based on button sales, and “Obama stuff has just been off the charts”, Mr Warlick said, noting that Obama merchandise outsold McCain memorabilia 10 to one.

“He’s already having a positive impact on the economy,” he said of Mr Obama. “We love that man.”

One of Mr Warlick’s suppliers, Tigereye Design in rural Greenville, Ohio, also got an early stimulus from the next US president. The company was contracted to make some official Obama campaign merchandise and also sold the branded items through its website, DemocraticStuff.com.

“Before we started working with the Obama campaign, we had 30 employees,” Justin Hemminger of Tigereye said. “At the peak during the election, we were up to just under 500 employees. The Obama merchandise put a lot of people to work in our part of Ohio.”

While the firm is now back down to about 50 employees, the sales continue. In the two months since the election, Tigereye has sold more than two million buttons. The company’s top-selling products, buttons, go for US$1 apiece or less if bought in quantity. Mr Hemminger noted an increase in customers buying thousands of Obama buttons at a time.

Unlike Political Americana, Tigereye is a partisan company that produces political goods for Democratic candidates only. In 2008, the company sold political goods in three categories: generic Democratic merchandise, anti-Bush merchandise and Obama items, which outsold the other two groups 20 to one, Mr Hemminger said. “Demand for [Obama goods] has been through the roof. It’s unlike any candidate we’ve ever seen before.”

The unprecedented popularity of Obama merchandise has created smaller scale economic boosts as well.

After nearly two decades in business, the February family’s corner store in the northern tip of Washington, DC, was having a tough time. Then Quacy February, 33, who runs the store with his Jamaican-American parents, began making his own Obama merchandise.

“The idea came into my head about a year and a half ago,” Mr February said. “It first started as a way of promoting Obama.”

Mr February bought a press and began printing Obama images and messages on T-shirts, scarves and hats. The 4th Street Market’s customers are primarily black, and most of the store’s other sales are consumables, but when Mr Obama beat Hillary Clinton last June to become the first African-American presidential candidate on a major ticket, the February family’s sales took off – thanks to the Obama goods.

Mr February does not expect the boom to last long after the inauguration. “We’ll just have to find something else,” he said. “You have to have a little diversity to be around for so many years.”

* The National