Despite low sales, small vendors put new spin on old Obama gear

George Escobar sells Obama T-shirts on the corner of 12th Street and Independence Avenue, three for $10.

In the week leading up to Monday’s inauguration, Escobar was hoping business would be as good as it was four years ago, for the last inauguration. But so far, he’s only sold a handful of shirts — “four years ago, more people liked Obama T-shirts,” he said.

Escobar is one of several street vendors in the District selling Obama paraphernalia. Four years ago, an estimated 1.8 million people attended President Obama’s inauguration in the capital, but this year, crowd estimates range from a third to about half that number. Many of the small vendors selling souvenirs are feeling the effects.

Obama’s historic election in 2008 drew record-breaking crowds, but enthusiasm for his second inauguration has clearly diminished. Even Obama himself is scaling back — this year, he and his wife will host only two inaugural balls as compared to the 10 official balls in 2009.

From vendor to vendor, inventory tends to be the same — such as standard black hooded sweatshirts with gold embroidered seals reflecting the date of inauguration, T-shirts with prints of Obama’s face, keychains and bobbleheads.

Eddie, who wouldn’t give his last name, operates a stall on the corner of 6th Street and Independence Avenue, offering a wide array of Obama T-shirts, caps and trinkets. “Business is getting worse,” he said.

In the past five or six weeks, he’s been selling only three to four items a day, but remembers selling about 50 or 60 items a day in the lead up to the last inauguration.

“It’s kind of a ghost town,” he said, describing the minimal foot traffic near his stall. He hopes business picks up on the day of inauguration, though he said he suspects fewer people are interested in Obama gear because they already bought it four years ago.

But for some visitors, like Valena and Ray Sibley visiting from Chicago, a new inauguration warrants new souvenirs. The two bought several Obama sweatshirts, ties and keychains for young relatives at home.

Though they both already had Obama T-shirts and buttons from four years ago, the two “made sure buy the sweatshirts with the date on it” to distinguish these souvenirs from those from four years ago, Ray said.

The Old Post Office Pavilion, home to several small souvenir shops, is seeing similarly slow business compared to the last inauguration.

Naranbaatar Ganzorig, manager of Magnet World, said she has not ordered any extra inventory for the president’s big day. Last inauguration, she said, she was approached by salesmen encouraging her to buy Obama-related items for her store. She hasn’t heard from them this year, and has focused her store on souvenirs related to D.C., not to inauguration. These days, her store generates less than $100 in sales a day, a fraction of what she made four years ago.

Penny Leong, owner of Finishing Touch, another souvenir shop in the pavilion, said souvenir sales are highly competitive, and she’s not sure her store can keep up.

“Every store sells the same [items]. Competition is very big,” she said, adding that she even feels outpaced by stores closer to the food court. “Where people eat, they buy,” she said.

Leong spent $5,000 on Obama-related inventory this year, but so far, has only sold a few sweatshirts.

Gi Chung, who owns City Electronics, Toyland and Video Postcard located downstairs in the pavilion, ordered $30,000 worth of merchandise this year. Last inauguration, he ordered $50,000 worth and sold it all, but expects to have a significant amount left over this year.

Chung said bobbleheads are his best selling item — last inauguration he sold 2,000. This year, saleswoman Loraine Legaspi noted, customers are interested in buying pairs of Obama and Michelle bobbleheads for $20 a pair, but that total sales are less than four years ago.

Chung is also struggling to sell the Mitt Romney gear he’d ordered during the election. Though he only ordered $1,000 worth of Romney T-shirts, bobbleheads and keychains, he’s still trying to sell what remains. He even tried giving some away, though few customers were interested, he said.

As of now, Chung sells all Romney souvenirs 50 percent off their original price; the bobbleheads go for $1 each.

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Mohana Ravindranath covers IT and small business for the Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication.
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