You think it's so easy to cash in on the Statue of Liberty hoo-ha? Think again.
Sure, it sounds simple: Just put the big dame with the torch on anything from nail clippers to shot glasses and wait for the patriotic saps to line your pockets. Every would-be entrepreneur with enough silk screens and chutzpah is trying it.
It is possible, at least here at Ground Zero, to buy chocolate Statue of Liberty Pops (bittersweet or milk), post cards of Jayne Mansfield carrying a torch, and a $50 stuffed teddy in a tiara labeled the Statue of Libearty. Some of the stuff is officially licensed; some of it pretends to be officially licensed (5,000 counterfeit T-shirts were seized on the fringes of the Garment District earlier this week); some of it makes no pretense of being anything but an attempt to determine how much of a Land of Opportunity this really is.
And sure, some of it is flying off the shelves. Those verdigris-colored foam crowns you see all over town, for example: Designer Elizabeth Tyre says she's sold "half a million, I guess" and is so pleased with this maiden venture into merchandising that she's introducing a foam one-size-fits-all I Love Liberty Visor with a multicolored harbor scene and a pop-up statue on top.
The Statue of Liberty Gallery in Greenwich Village, which claims to be the only store in New York and possibly the world devoted solely to Liberty paraphernalia, is scrambling to resupply its dwindling stock of shower curtains. Chemical Bank has approved 10,000 applications for its new Statue of Liberty Visa card. And Bloomingdale's, the founding fathers would be pleased to know, reports a brisk trade in designer Carlos Falchi's hand-applique'd leather clutches, shoulder bags and knapsacks at $290 to $580. "It's a thank-you to the country," Falchi says modestly.
Liberty entrepreneurs do have this tendency to portray their projects as patriotic gestures. Tyre was "trying to spread love and liberty, in a small way," with her half million foam crowns. And it's fitting that bikers be offered Liberty Edition Harley-Davidsons -- with the Lady's likeness on their gas tanks, maroon pin striping and price tags of up to $10,224 -- because, a company spokesman says, "there is a great deal of Americana associated with Harley-Davidson."
But the buying public, in its ingratitude, has not responded enthusiastically to all such gestures. You think people are such schnooks they'll buy any darned thing with a seven-pointed crown on it? The fact is, plenty of statue peddlers are going to get stuck with Liberty stuff.
Take the nail clippers. Please. A distributor offered half a million of them, imported from Taiwan with the dame on the front, to Howie Snyder, vice president of Odd Job Trading, a k a the King of Close-Outs. Snyder claims to have sold, in his chain of seven emporiums devoted to the discontinued and ill-conceived detritus of American manufacturing, 10,000 videocassettes of "For the Love of Liberty" at a third of its $15 retail price ("and it's not such a great tape," he points out). Also, 100,000 solid chocolate Statues of Liberty dumped by Nestle. But even he wouldn't touch the nail clippers.
"They probably rust," Snyder reasoned. "Perhaps a better one, made in West Germany. But this was a loser."
Baseball caps and painter's hats with the copyrighted logo of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation are moving sluggishly. "It's been a total bust," admits Tom Leonard, director of sales and marketing for Pro Sports, official licensee for headwear. "It's been one fiasco after the next."
Canvas and Leather Bag Co. Inc. hoped to sell half a million wholesale dollars worth of Liberty tote bags, lunch kits and insulated picnic coolers in "assorted fashion colors." Instead, "I'll be happy to reach $100,000," its sales and marketing director says morosely.
As for the official line of licensed T-shirts, jogging suits, rompers and pajamas, its manufacturer is filing for a Chapter 11 reorganization. Brandywine of California Ltd. did "great" with its Garfield the Cat and Snoopy licensed shirts, (only "so-so" with Madonna and Wham!, though president Joe Levinson has great hopes for the new Michael Jackson's Pets series). But in three years of trying, Brandywine has failed to hit the "big numbers" with statue apparel.
"I can't come close to the numbers I was supposed to do to make our payment to the foundation," Levinson frets. He is referring to the "minimum guarantee" that each of the 100-plus licensees must pay the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, an advance against royalties of 5 to 12 percent of the purchase prices of the licensed items, all of which is expected to raise $20 million to $25 million for the statue's restoration. Levinson won't mention figures, but he is said to have guaranteed a million dollars for the right to make the official T-shirts. Whatever the promised amount was, Levinson says he can't pay even a third of it. "We must not have paid our phone bill," he jokes after a conversation is cut off in mid-lament.
And the crazy thing is, you can't quite fathom why Americans -- a people seemingly eager to buy Rambo dolls and Where's the Beef? jigsaw puzzles -- will buy one Statue of Liberty item and not another.
How come Weingeroff Enterprises, the Rhode Island manufacturer of official jewelry, moved plenty of brass pocket knives with "Keep the Torch Lit" engraved on their blades but couldn't get to first base with its metal Statue of Liberty credit card cases?
Why did Nestle Beich, the subsidiary that supplies Little Leaguers and Boy Scouts with fund-raising candy, make at least 100,000 too many solid chocolate statues in red, white and blue boxes? ("Let me tell you, Nestle still has a very large quantity," confides Snyder, who's selling the $3 item for 99 cents. "They might have underestimated all this health food stuff." The marketing vice president of Nestle Beich retorts that the statue's been "a very good seller" and says "those guys add several zeroes to everything.")
And why is Mythology, the Columbus Avenue toy store for grown-ups, sold out of a little $2.95 flip book by artist Yani Batteau in which Miss Liberty finally drops her torch and that heavy tome she's always schlepping, whips off her gown and happily goes skinny-dipping in New York Harbor?
You can't blame the failures on tastelessness, heaven knows. It's true that taste was one of the criteria that Hamilton Projects, which handled licensing for the foundation, used in assessing products. It's true that the Liberty junk could have been worse: Hamilton turned down applications to license caskets, ammunition, toilet seat covers, and whips and chains. "A leading pornographic magazine came to us and wanted to celebrate Love in America" with a pictorial, recalls Hamilton spokeswoman Cheryl Peralta. No thanks, said Hamilton Projects.
But consider Spirit of America Air Freshener. It comes in three red-white-and-blue styles, featuring the statue, a fierce eagle or the legend "USA 1." It's impregnated with "a fresh citrus fragrance." It retails for 69 to 99 cents at supermarkets and discount stores. It is an officially licensed product. "It has surpassed our projections," says an executive at Marlenn Corp. of Baltimore, the nation's leading source of specialty air fresheners. It has sold so well that one Spirit of America style will remain in Marlenn's permanent collection of 150 air fresheners, right along with the Snoopy, Playboy and Mario Andretti models.
So what explains this public insistence on discriminatory buying behavior? You hear various theories, not to say accusations. "I personally think the market is flooded with licensed products," says Jack Horovitz, executive vice president of Pro Sports, the hat people and licensee for Tyre's foam crown. "The public is being swamped."
Licensees who counted on mass merchandisers to buy their products have been sorely disappointed; J.C. Penney and K mart are carrying no official Liberty items. Sears is doing a big promotion (it's attaching a little coin -- a full 2.5 percent of which is authentic metal salvaged from the statue during its renovation -- to its 14.1 million summer catalogues) but is handling no clothing. "A lot of these retailers got stuck after the Olympics," explains Hamilton Projects President Michael Stone. "It was that kind of fear."
As for the foundation's big corporate sponsors such as Chrysler and Stroh's, expected to stockpile enormous quantities of souvenirs as premiums for employes and guests, they were not contractually obligated to buy Liberty stuff, and most have been cheeky enough not to. "We contacted Lee Iacocca's office," says Levinson, the T-shirt man, "but we didn't get anywhere."
Several licensees have gone public with complaints that Hamilton Projects did not pursue marketing opportunities aggressively enough, or police the knockoffs aggressively enough. There's been continuous wrangling over foam crowns, with the official headwear licensee demanding, and getting, a cease-and-desist telegram from the foundation to the official sun visor licensee, which had also entered the crown market. There's been a lawsuit against the official precious-metal ingot licensee, which Stone says failed to make its required payments. The official plastic shopping bag licensee says the foundation refused to approve the 150,000 Liberty litter bags he printed for a New York fast food chain (the chain was a competitor of a corporate sponsor); he's "saddened and angry" and planning to spend the Fourth in Florida. The motorcycle helmet licensee decided to pull out of the effort without producing a single product, forcing hundreds of patriots to mount their Liberty Edition Harley-Davidsons in mismatched headgear. It's been a bit messy, to tell the truth.
Still, Stone says, "the vast majority of licensees will make a profit." As for those who don't, "it's largely their own fault. They either had bad merchandise or faulty expectations of a quick profit."
Cashing in sounded easier than it has turned out to be, apparently. But you can't count the capitalists out yet. Sales have reportedly picked up in the past few weeks. Proceeds from the Liberty Weekend delirium alone, given the millions of visitors and thousands of vendors expected in New York, may push some distributors well into the black. And then there is the unpredictable but drooled-over phenomenon known as the "aftermarket."
As most merchandisers are now sharply aware, the statue's actual centennial date falls in late October, David Wolper notwithstanding. There will be another round of hoopla then, and presumably another round of sales. "Sort of a one-two punch," one marketing chief rejoices. Pro Sports may yet find takers for its knit Liberty ski caps. Carlos Falchi is doing another edition of pricey bags in fall colors, "more of an evening group."
And -- more good news -- there may be tie-ins with the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution next year. The people at the Statue of Liberty Gallery downtown have noticed that 1992 is the centennial year for the immigration center at Ellis Island. And, come to think of it, won't that be 500 years since Columbus landed in the New World? It's not over til it's over.