A boom time for selling Tea Party merchandise

Jeff Winkler Contributor

Freedom might cost a buck-o-five, but you need a little more to look P-I-M-P at a Tea Party rally.

No longer just selling homemade buttons for gas money, Tea Partiers have been setting up shop along the internet highway as Tea Party brand recognition grows. Evidence of the Tea Parties’ popularity can be found in polls, sure, but the proof is in the marketplace as well. The reverse appears to be true for President Obama, whose positive trend at the polls and the souvenir stand have both dropped. Now that the Tea Party brand is rising, it should be no surprise that others are getting in on a piece of the action, too.

“The Tea Party merchandise, across the board, is the most popular category of the political merchandise we have,” said Michael Karns, director of public relations of Zazzle, which hosts and creates products designed and submitted by users.

“Tea Party products on Zazzle are more popular than any pro-Democratic products,” he said. “It’s more popular than any pro-Republican group of products and the only thing that gives the Tea Party merchandise a run for its money are … products with an anti-Democrat sentiment.

Karns said the company likes to think of the “Zazzle marketplace as an indicator of trends,” like the finger on the pulse of America. Café Press — operating a platform similar to Zazzle — has checked their heart monitors and have taken note, too.

“We’ve been around for a good three presidential elections and we have over 400,000 designs uploaded everyday, so the site has become somewhat of a cultural barometer of trends happening,” said Amy Maniatis, Café Press’ vice president of market.

The Tea Party, she said, has been one of the trends they’ve noticed.

“Sales for Tea Party merchandise have just tripled in the last few months compared to last year or earlier this year where we were averaging well over 100,000 a month,” she said. “We really started to see it gain moment about February of this year and it stayed consistent since then. “

She continued, “What we’re seeing is, broader designs, broader views being identified as Tea Party ideology… I think what we’re seeing is a great deal more momentum of people identifying with it, identifying their sensibilities with the Tea Party. “

When Tea Party products first appeared on Zazzle, Karns said they were resoundingly negative in message. But in the past few months Zazzle has seen “the sentiment sort of, not a sea change, but a softening of the Tea Party… Instead of simply saying, ‘Out with the old,’ the Tea Party movement now has a place to focus their positive efforts.”

Apart from that moment of political analysis, companies like Café Press and Zazzle are in it to make money. Growth in diversity and acceptance of the Tea Party is great for the movement, but it also means wider markets for the business-savvy. Most small-time, dedicated Tea Party merchants, however, say that they’ve seen spikes in sales as well. But they say any profit they make goes towards furthering Tea Party causes.

Up and running since July 4, Tea Party Gear Online is serving as a hosting and promotional site for other Tea Party groups.

“What we’re doing is allowing other Tea Party groups from across the country to list products on the site free as means for Tea Party groups around the country to raise funds,” said site operator Michael Kinzie.

Kinzie said one of the best-selling items on the site is more “educational” than anything else: copies of the Federalist Papers. That’s not to say that the bling-bling doesn’t do well at Tea Party Gear. The other top sellers on the site are various flags, the Constitution and tea pot pins made with enough gold and crystal to make Paul Wall smile.

NEXT PAGE: Tea Partiers vs. profiteering capitalists; the joys of coloring books; and Don’t Tread On…my outfit
Tea Partiers, including Dale Robertson, are a little put off by the free enterprise motive and think “it’s just wrong to see some profiteer” coldly benefit from the movement itself. Robertson runs and his online store, Tea Party Swag, uses the minimal merchandise profits to both maintain the website and help other local Tea Party organizations.

“I saw Café Press selling all their Tea Party stuff and I was like ‘what a bunch of capitalists.’ I think it’s better to have the Tea Party doing it themselves,” Robertson said.

“Why give Zazzle all the money? Why give Café Press all the money? Because they don’t support the Tea party, you know all they care about is putting money in their pocket.”

As Robertson remarked, in general, to TheDC: “When you’ve got a message that strikes a cord with the American people, people are going to buy more of it.”

Needless to say, that’s not a metaphorical statement. The unintentional collision between the political brand and the profitable one is experiencing a bull market, with some amusing results.

For more than 30 years, The Really Big Coloring Books Company has been selling coloring books in all 50 states, and covering a wide variety of topics.

Company founder Wayne Bell has made  headlines recently — some nasty — for publishing a Tea Party coloring book. Bell is proud of his company, proud of the array of books they have while pointing out that the company also published an Obama book after the 2008 elections. For his part, Bell says the book is not political. More importantly, he said that the company has sold a good number of the Tea Party books.

Even the ubiquitous small-government slogan, “Don’t Tread On Me,” has been co-opted by a California-based company hawking a Harley Davidson-inspired rebel clothing line that’s been featured in Lucky Brand stores and worn by Metallica.

DTOM founder Tim Bauer said the idea for the line of DTOM gear came from the Gadsden flag his father had. With the tough-looking clothing line, Tim and his brother Luke work to make the phrase even more iconic.

“We wanted to make it a brand, so when [people] saw that, they’d think ‘America.’”

Much like the Tea Party movement, Bauer is proud to say that DTOM is absolutely, 100 percent, Made In America.