SALEM — At Dodge Grain in Salem, customers start asking for them around Thanksgiving, and by the time the new year rolls in, workers have handed out about 2,500 large glossy wall calendars with the company's name, address and phone number.
"We've been giving away calendars for years and years," said Brendan Burke, whose family owns the company specializing in farm and animal supplies. "We had two versions this year, one with horses and the other with different animals, but the one that was just horses is all gone."
Not long ago, Dodge Grain's calendar was probably one of about a dozen calendars that households received from banks, dry cleaners, auto body shops and other local businesses.
Promotional calendars used to compete for that coveted key spot in the kitchen where a company's name and contact information would be on display for 365 days. But today, despite the emphasis on branding and name recognition, fewer and fewer businesses are opting to spend their marketing dollars on end-of-the-year calendar giveaways.
"A big part of that is technology," said Nicole Gula of Gula Promotions in Stratham, who hasn't had any orders this year for promotional calendars. "Today, most people just turn on their phones or their tablets for a calendar."
Electronic calendars not only give people all the information they need about meetings, anniversaries and birthdays, smartphones can sound an alarm to remind users something is coming up. And a lot of doctors and dentists are starting to use text messages to remind patients of upcoming appointments.
The disappearance of that free calendar that shows off 12 scenic views of New Hampshire while reminding people of the phone number for a local mechanic not only reflects the change in how people track time, it also reveals how little time it takes for technology to displace familiar items and traditions.
As recently as 2009, Promotional Products Association International conducted a study and found that promotional calendars generated $1.12 billion in revenue, or about 7 percent of the $15.6 billion promotional product industry. According to PPAI, calendars were one of the top five items businesses used to market their products and services.
But today, free calendars, even the small magnetic variety that a lot of families once slapped on the fridge, are becoming rare.
Not cost effective
Route 28 in Windham has a dozen or more of auto sales, equipment and repair businesses which in the past have been one of the main sources of promotional calendars. But this year, there were none.
Stephen Isabelle of Windham Auto Sales said calendars aren't really an effective marketing tool for auto dealerships. By the time you add up production costs with paying someone to look up the names and addresses of past customers and then the envelopes and postage, it just doesn't make sense.
In the past, promotional product companies have countered that argument by pointing out that a calendar is an investment that long outlives a printed ad or a spot on radio or television. And companies can generate business by incorporating coupons and sales information into a calendar.
But as Isabelle pointed out, people buy cars every couple of years and the memory of good service and honest deals is more effective in building customer loyalty than having an auto dealership name on continual display.
Still, as Isabelle was talking, he realized that he hadn't received his desk calendar, a regular end-of-the-year complementary gift from a longtime distributor. In some industries, business-to-business calendars are still used as a way to thank clients and keep a company name visible.
Farley Gates of Alphagraphics in Nashua, which specializes in printed materials such as brochures, signs and direct marketing literature, said paper companies that supply printing businesses still produce and send out large, high-end calendars that anyone would hang on a wall. But calendar orders from small local businesses just aren't part of Alphagraphics business these days. Like Gula, Gates figures technology is behind the shifting trend.
Kelly Springer, client services manager at Allegra marketing in Bedford, also believes smartphones and personal electronic devices are responsible for the decline of promotional wall calendars. This year, Springer had one order for a calendar.
"People used to send out calendars as a kind of holiday card," she said. "But today, everything has an electronic presentation."
Springer said that businesses investing in promotional products are choosing other types of items such as travel mugs, flash drives and even flash lights.
"You can never go wrong with pens," she said, adding that some businesses like things that are unusual and fun. Allegra's catalog includes promotional stress balls, a popular desk-top toy that keeps a business name at the user's fingertips.
Some larger businesses have stuck with the calendars. Several banks still offer practical, no photos, no frills wall calendars and big-name franchises such Dunkin' Donuts still hand them out.
And Dodge Grain isn't even considering phasing out their calendars. Still, this year, the company teamed up with Purina to help defray the production costs of the 2014 edition.
"At the end of the year, I'm always asking customers if they got their calendar," said Burke. "People really seem to love them."