When The Party's Over . . .

You've built your business on millennium madness. Good for you! But what happens when the ball drops over Times Square? Don't let your business become last century's news.
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the August 1999 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Giddiness and high times are now the story at all the companies that make and sell "official" millennial gear.

From countdown clocks to "Last of the Millennium" T-shirts, merchandise is flying off the shelves as consumers prepare themselves to commemorate a truly unique event.

But in the midst of all the celebration, one ugly thought nags business owners: "Who's going to want a millennium-anything on January 2?" says Budd Goldman, 52, owner of Countdown Clocks International in Mineola, New York. "When this party is over, there will be a very empty feeling among millennium merchandisers."

It will happen in an instant. And in that heartbeat of a clock tick, as the calendar page shifts from December 1999 to January 2000, millennial merchandisers will see their businesses evaporate before their eyes. The scary fact is obsolescence is built into millennium gear, and there's nothing sadder than a fad that has had its day, says Michael R. Solomon, a professor of consumer affairs at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. "On January 2, the trinkets and T-shirts will be old news."

Yeah, but isn't there hope for an encore, a repeat "Enter the Millennium" celebration on December 31, 2000? Merchandisers who think so know their calendars but have nonetheless slipped into self-delusion. Yes, the technical fact is the next millennium really doesn't start until January 1, 2001. Holding tightly to that fact, some millennial merchandisers believe the public will rally for a second celebration. But business pragmatists know it's a sucker's bet.

Kenneth Walker of Walker Group/Designs, for instance, began trademarking "01-01-00" as early as 1994. By 1997, he had spent more than $500,000 on trademarks alone, but he owned the mark in 30 countries. Then he set about licensing his mark to makers of mugs, watches, caps, and even umbrellas, getting 01-01-00 products into close to 10,000 stores, including biggies like Bloomingdale's and J.C. Penney. Walker hit a home run--to the tune of $60 million in fourth-quarter 1998 sales alone--but he has no illusions about the future. "We project some first-quarter [2000] sales in Asia, where calendars are different, and incidental sales in Europe and the United States," says Walker. "Then it will stop. We'd like to have it [carry over] into the next millennium, but we're not fooling ourselves."

Might other millennial merchandisers with broader product hooks fare better? Not likely. "Many people are bored by the millennium already," says Audrey Guskey, a marketing professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Solomon agrees: "The millennium has been overexploited. People are sick of it." Sure, the consuming public is notoriously unpredictable, but face it, the odds of an encore millennium are slim to none, and no merchandiser can count on a second celebration to pump life into a dead business.

So what can millennial merchandisers do once the party's over? We canvassed both entrepreneurs in the trenches and marketing experts to get their strategies for building a long-term business out of a single event and found there just may be opportunities tomorrow. You're not a millennial merchandiser? Heads up anyway--these strategies are ways to revive any sagging company or slumping product line.

  • Think millennium chic. One strategy is to broaden a product's appeal, says futurist Gerald Celente, author of Trends 2000 (Warner Books). "The millennium isn't just a calendar change. It signifies something. The millennium generation doesn't want a '57 Chevy. It wants products that capture the next millennium's mind-set."

A T-shirt stamped 01-01-00 may be a dust rag by July 2000, but other products won't become obsolete as fast if they reflect new ways of thinking, Celente says. Make your product embody the philosophical, intellectual and technological changes that will define the 21st century.

Celente predicts that yesteryear's stuff will be swept out in a rush of millennium consciousness. Of course, that's more bad news for marketers of standard millennial gear because their wares are inherently rooted in this millennium's mind-set. But the product developers who can creatively rethink what they're doing and build in aspects of "tomorrow" have a good chance of hitting it big, predicts Celente.

  • Diversify. One marketing canon states that living and dying by a single product alone is risky business. "You're doomed if you do. Every product has a life cycle; sooner or later, it will die," says Thomas Schori, a principal with Millennium Marketing Research, a Bloomington, Illinois, consulting firm.

But there is a remedy, says Guskey: Expand your idea and your product.

That's easy to say, but John Locher is actually doing it. In 1996, Locher's company, Milestone Media, put up the Everything 2000 (http://www.everything2000.com) Web site, which features information on and links to just about everything pertaining to the millennium. Because Locher knows his site has a limited life expectancy, he's leveraged the know-how he's gained from launching Everything 2000 to put up "Everything" sites for Christmas, Halloween and Valentine's Day. "The millennium site has done well for us, and it's helped us get the other sites up," says the Seattle entrepreneur.

Rio Simon, the 32-year-old co-founder of Last of the Millennium, a San Diego-based T-shirt manufacturer, is following much the same strategy. He realizes that demand for T-shirts with a "Last of the Millennium" imprint will be flatter than day-old champagne come January 2000, but by then he says he'll be pushing a new T-shirt line imprinted with "Club 2000." Even before then, however, his company is staying busy putting out '99 T-shirts for several San Diego-area high school graduating classes; '00 T-shirts for next year's classes may follow. "These variations should keep us busy well into 2000," says Simon.

  • Retool it. Some millennial merchandise can be easily repurposed. At Countdown Clocks, for instance, Budd Goldman figures a minor expenditure for new clock exteriors can transform his millennial countdown clocks to timers that can count down anything--graduation, retirement, a wedding, you name it. "My chips can count down to any date," says Goldman, who claims he's already sold 1.5 million Countdown Clocks at about $25 each. "When I created this business, I knew I wanted a life after the millennium, and this product delivers it."

Similarly, Locher envisions revamping his Everything 2000 Web site to position it as a "New Millennium" or "2001" site. "The expenses involved will be minimal, and we may find this site has a life span that will take it well into the next millennium," says Locher.

More broadly, retooling is always an option when a product has hit the wall. When the costs are minor, the payback just might be big.

  • Minimize inventory. When you can't cheaply revamp or update merchandise, the only wise strategy is to get caught holding as little as possible. "You can't be myopic about it. Soon, nobody will want your merchandise," says Guskey, who advises millennial merchandisers to move their inventories out as fast as possible and to plan to end the year with an empty warehouse.

That's a strategy shrewd marketers understand. Says Simon, "We plan to have very little Last of the Millennium inventory left by year-end."

  • Throw it away. But the realistic fact is that millennial merchandisers will be stuck with unsold inventory. What can they do? Step one: Cut prices--and keep slashing until the merchandise moves. There's no price that will entice buyers to buy? You may be stuck; some merchandise will just be junk come January 2.

Don't delude yourself: There won't be a collectibles market in millennium merchandise for many years. In fact, according to Solomon, it probably won't exist until 2010 at the earliest. Store some inventory if you have available space, but be ready for a long wait.

Want a faster solution? Give the stuff away, and earn a tasty tax break. "Sometimes the goods are worth more as donations to charity," says David Yoho, a marketing consultant in Louisville, Kentucky. Maybe on the street that T-shirt stamped "New Year's Day, 2000" won't sell for $1 once the Rose Bowl's first kickoff hits the air, but give that shirt to charity, and you can usually claim a deduction equal to its cost, possibly to its suggested retail price. (But check with a tax professional before counting on this money.)

  • Leverage your skills. Maybe the big gain out of having a millennial business is that successfully marketing in that climate provides the basis for many businesses to come. Simon, for example, might never have been involved in event marketing if he hadn't been struck with a millennial idea. Now he has plans--and the know-how--to continue. The millennium may be over, but there will be other hooks. Whether it's the Olympics, soccer's World Cup or a visit from the Pope, says Guskey, "[People] now live from event to event, and every event is a marketing opportunity. Once you have an expertise at event marketing, you can leverage it into new areas."
  • Be a trend-spotter. "Most large businesses don't look very far ahead," says Celente. "This is where an entrepreneur can have a real advantage. And because an entrepreneurial [business is smaller], it can also react swiftly. More than ever, you need to stay future-oriented because the rate of change is so fast."

Remember, Walker started trademarking "01-01-00" in 1994. Goldman began developing his countdown clocks in 1996. Simon took out a trademark on "Last of the Millennium" in 1997. The adage tells us about the success of the early birds, and it's no different when marketing specialty products.

But there's another benefit enjoyed by savvy marketers: "You don't have to follow trends; you can also create them," says Greg Bustin, president of Bustin & Co., a Dallas business-development firm. In many ways, the millennium craze may just stand as a prime example of a marketing-driven phenomenon. A flip of the calendar is no reason to buy clocks, T-shirts, caps and more, but the early players helped create a market, reaped rich rewards, and are now scouting for the next opportunity. And so should you.

  • Stay philosophical. "For every product that succeeds, there are many failures before it," says Goldman. He should know. He's hit it big with his clocks--overnight, he built a multimillion-dollar business--but he also knows it could have gone another way. Maybe somebody could have beaten him to the punch, perhaps consumers might have yawned at his clocks, and for those reasons, Goldman says about his triumph, "I feel blessed."

A final bit of advice comes from Marc Polish, a Margate, New Jersey, expert on novelty products and co-owner of Class of '00, which merchandises T-shirts and hats imprinted with that logo. "In this business, when you have an idea, you take your shot and you just may hit a home run. But you never know," he says. "You're making products people don't need, and there's no saying where consumers' heads will be."

So ask yourself whether you're having fun in the millennium industry, Polish advises. Ask whether you're treating people right. "If you're treating people--shop owners, buyers and consumers--right," he says, "they'll do business with you again. And if you're having fun, you'll definitely want to try it again. In this business, you just never know what will happen. That's what makes it so exciting."

Contact Sources

Bustin & Co., (214) 720-3707, gregbustin@bustin.com

Class of '00, (609) 823-7661, sedonamax@aol.com

Countdown Clocks International, (516) 739- 7800, ext. 101, bgoldman@countdownclock.com

Last of the Millennium, (619) 216-1999, http://www.lastofthemillennium.com

Milestone Media Inc., (206) 621-0999;

Walker Group/Designs, (212) 683-2626, walker@010100.com

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