After presidential elections every four or eight years, Washington’s gift shops and souvenir stands undergo an overnight transformation. Barack Obama action figures made way for “Make America Great Again” gear in 2016, and now Biden-Harris face masks and T-shirts are pushing MAGA hats to the clearance racks.
“Whenever you have a change in administration, no matter who it is, there are new customers and all new energy,” said Alesia Jones, vice president of the longtime Washington store. “It’s like you flip a switch and have a completely new store.”
Sales are typically steady regardless of who’s in the White House, thanks to a dependable stream of political supporters and tourists who want keepsakes from the nation’s capital. But this year is different.
At White House Gifts, revenue has fallen 80 percent since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March, and tourism — especially lucrative international travel — ground to a halt. Most of the people who wander in are regional, traveling from Maryland or Virginia. The store, which once had 32 workers, now employs seven.
Still, souvenir sellers across the city say they are hopeful that the Biden-Harris win will create enthusiasm for their products. Harris — the country’s first elected female, Black and Asian vice president — holds a special appeal to girls and women that they’re hoping to capitalize on. White House Gifts is already selling girls’ T-shirts that say “Kamala is my VP” and “That little girl was me,” a reference to Harris’s viral exchange with Biden during a Democratic presidential debate last year. Other shop owners say they’re hoping to replicate the kind of success they’ve had with products commemorating former first lady Michelle Obama and late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
After a costly mistake in 2016 — in which owner Jim Warlick bought $100,000 worth of Hillary Clinton T-shirts, mugs and wine glasses before the election — executives this time waited until Sunday, one day after Biden was named the winner of the presidential race, to place their orders. Jones says she’s still parsing speeches and appearances by Biden and Harris to pick up on quotes and ideas for new merchandise.
“Each president has their own theme,” said Jones, who said designers typically start creating products six months before an election. “For Trump, it was ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Keep America Great’ that kind of took over. This time around, we’re picking up on cues such as Joe Biden’s aviator glasses and, of course, the fact that Kamala Harris is breaking a huge glass ceiling for women.”
The official White House Gift Shop is offering preorders on an official Biden-Harris inauguration coin for $100. Elsewhere on the Internet, businesses are selling Biden-scented candles (“a captivating blend of musk and honey”) for $25, Harris-theme coloring books ($17) and life-size cardboard cutouts of both ($40). For those on the other side of the political spectrum, there are “Impeach Biden” bumper stickers ($5) and bath mats ($20).
The change in administration, shop owners say, often also means a change in tone. At Chocolate Moose, a novelty gift shop where Trump toilet paper has been the top-seller for four years, owner Michele Cosby said she’s preparing for more earnest products this time around.
“We carry merchandise for every administration, but obviously some administrations offer more material than others,” she said. “Trump has definitely been our biggest-selling administration.”
In addition to $8 rolls of toilet paper bearing Trump’s face, other popular items include a squeaky Trump dog toy for $22 and a $15 talking pen with eight catchphrases, including “I don’t wear a toupee” and “Look, I’m really rich.”
Cosby said she isn’t sure what types of Biden-Harris merchandise she’ll stock, because vendors have been slow to design, manufacture and ship products during the pandemic. The 42-year-old shop in downtown D.C. has been closed during the pandemic, so the business has shifted to online. Still, Cosby said, about 85 percent of the orders are from locals who tend to lean Democratic.
“Covid has put a halt to so much production,” she said. “We’ll try to get what we can.”
Also in question is the upcoming presidential inauguration, which typically generates more than $1 billion for local shops, restaurants and hotels. It’s unclear how many people will show up for the Jan. 20 event during a pandemic and whether there will be the usual gaggle of inaugural balls and receptions that bring thousands of tourists to the area.
“The inauguration is like a Super Bowl for us,” Jones said, making up as much as 20 percent of White House Gifts’ annual sales. “This year we don’t really know how to plan. How many people will come? What will the events look like? Will there be a parade? We just don’t know.”
Some tourism experts, though, say there is reason for optimism. Despite the pandemic, Maggie Daniels, a professor of tourism at George Mason University, said the Biden-Harris inauguration “will mark the beginning of a significant and lasting boost” to Washington businesses.
“This is perhaps the first time in the history of the United States that the excitement associated with our incoming vice president is as palpable as that of our incoming president,” she said.
Executives at America! sprang into action within minutes of the Biden-Harris win. Managers at the national gift shop chain kicked off a group text to figure out logistics. By Saturday evening, commemorative T-shirts bearing the faces of Biden and Harris were on display at the company’s Baltimore and D.C.-area stores, including the Reagan National Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport and at National Harbor and Old Town Alexandria.
As of Tuesday morning, all 13 of the company’s stores were stocked with inauguration T-shirts, coffee mugs, buttons and magnets. Trump merchandise had been relocated to the back.
“Trump was a very successful brand for our stores these past years, and we’re excited to move forward now that we have a new president-elect,” said Tara Towers, vice president of merchandising for the company’s parent company, Marshall Retail Group. “Sales of inauguration T’s have already been really promising, and that momentum will continue until the inauguration.”
“Make America Great Again” baseball caps were the best-selling product during the Trump years. This time around, Towers said, the company has two areas of focus: uniting Americans with a new line of red-white-and-blue merchandise and creating Harris-related products geared toward women and girls.
“We want to bring a sense of empowerment to our stores, the idea that the world is full of endless possibility,” she said.