Northern Sun Merchandising has thrived and may perish by the sword of skewering politicians.
In 1979, Scott Cramer established the enterprise to protest leakage at the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear plant. He rode around on his bike with tee shirts, buttons and such stuffed in his backpack. The next year, Cramer found plenty of fodder in Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency. Reagan’s relentlessly pro-war administration fostered such a demand for anti-war merchandise that Cramer opened a store. That started the ball rolling and policies of successive presidents kept Northern Sun alive and well in the business of message-oriented merchandise.
“For eight years,” Scott Cramer recalls, “we had George Bush to kick around. And, for our business, that was a pretty good thing. In ’04 [as George Bush ran for re-election], all we had that was anti-Bush, we could sell. Everybody wanted everything.”
With the coming of Barack Obama, the tack changed from dressing down the bad guys to celebrating the good guy. When he threw his hat in the ring, Northern Sun started putting Obama merchandise on its shelves and its website. Stock began flying out of the door. The cash register rang at 2916 E. Lake Street and the store’s mail-order business, which now accounts for the lion’s share of sales, saw still more traffic.
“We sold a lot of Obama stuff,” said Cramer, “particularly through the summer and the fall. That was good for us. It was also fingers-crossed as to whether he’d turn out to be any good.”
Fingers crossed or not, so far as marketing was concerned, there was no doubt Northern Sun Merchandising had backed the right horse.
The Obama boom, however, had to go bust, after he won. Customers were no longer buying out the store in support, as they had while their candidate battled it out for the presidency. With the fight over and victory declared, it was time to simply enjoy the win. It was also time for Northern Sun to feel the weight of the recession.
“I’ve had to lay people off,” Cramer said. “People have cut back their hours. I had to let three people go. For the winter we put in a spending freeze and we’re living off inventory.” He’s currently shipping the company’s spring catalog. If it doesn’t produce enough sales, there will be more cutbacks. Does he anticipate having to close the doors? “I don’t know. There’s only so far you can go before you’re non-functional.”
Cramer is not concerned about the post-election fall-off in sales of Obama-related goods, saying that they saw similar, short-term fall-offs after the Carter and Clinton elections. He says the biggest factor affecting Northern Sun right now is the recession, as experts promise only worsening economic news throughout 2009. Right now, he says, they are “challenged to come up with positive activist messages, and at the same time remain a critical voice on the Wall Street mess and the greed and short-sightedness that got us into this mess.”
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.