It’s happened to businesses and marketers everywhere: you ordered stunning promotional products to make new friends and thank customers at your trade show or convention and find yourself leaving with boxes of leftover promos. Maybe it’s because your had-to-have product had an order minimum of 1,000 units, or trade show turnout was way down. Either way, you have your hands (and closets) full of products that were meant to find customers and prospects, but now you’re stuck with them.

What’s a marketer to do? Well, lots of people hold onto them until the next show! Buying in bulk is a great way to save money long term if your company makes a lot of event or show appearances (we’re sure you can find some office space to store them – if nothing else, tell your employees everyone gets a free foot rest and put some boxes under their desks). But what if your calendar is alarmingly empty of upcoming events?

Don’t panic and curse the promotional products pantheon of gods just yet. It turns out you can do a little “spring cleaning” no matter what season it is with our list of creative ways to reuse, repurpose, and recycle your extra promotional products!

1. Repurpose

One of the most popular ways to deal with your trade show giveaways is to find another way to use them to reach out to customers. Jason Khoo at Ron Wave Design thinks that extra promotional products are the perfect customer service tool. He says, “If an issue has arisen, giving a customer a promotional item can help calm them down as they have received something of value for their troubles.” A handwritten “Sorry about that!” card mailed out with a company t-shirt or water bottle after a shipping snafu can make a huge difference in how customers perceive your brand.

Jason Parks at The Media Captain told us about his experience repurposing leftover trade show products, saying, “We ordered magnifying glasses for our agency for a trade show and had a ton left over…Since we had so many leftover, we decided to continue to use this as a sales tool even after the trade show. Any new lead that came into our agency, we would send them the magnifying glass with our logo along with a personalized note. The shipping wasn’t cheap but it drastically increased our closing rate percentage.”

Leftover promotional products are also a perfect way to encourage social media interaction (which can lead to sales and conversions!). Consider sending out leftover pens or other small items to new followers, anyone who tags your company in a post, or someone who leaves a positive review of your brand. You can also host social media contests – the grand prize might be a gift card, but you can thank other participants with other branded items.

You can also repurpose them as gifts to your employees. Kathy Powell at Tie National says, “Depending on what type of stock is remaining we will use them to create gift baskets, or basket fillers for employee raffles at the summer picnic or other events.” Using branded products might not generate any customer revenue, but it will definitely build up morale on your work team, and that’s pretty priceless.

Whether it’s prospecting, customer service, or team building, promotional products have proven to have worth outside of the trade shows they’re ordered for.

2. Trade

In 2016, at the infamous South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, the trade show floor turned into a trading zone. Hershey’s (yes, that Hershey’s) decided to use this popular festival as an opportunity to launch a new logo for their Take 5 candy bar by offering a swag exchange. Conference goers could take swag they’d received from other vendors and brands and trade it for something at the Hershey’s booth. According to Promo Marketing, “Consumers could swap out items for other items, like ponchos, flasks, portable iPhone projectors and gift cards. The operation even had its own economic platform, where items were valued based on supply and demand.”

Would this work for you brand? Well, Hershey’s received tons of brand exposure when they tried out their swag swap, so it’s certainly worth thinking about creative ways to work an exchange into your promo product strategy, even if it’s just to get people talking! Hershey’s also received almost 6,000 branded items during their exchange. What did they do with THAT leftover swag? Well, they donated it to local charities. Which leads us to another great way to reuse your promo products.

3. Donate

Tons of businesses get donation requests – just recently, our sales team got a request for unused tote bags for a nonprofit event. As weird as it seems for a promotional products company not to have leftover bags on hand, we don’t; all of our products get shipped straight to the people who order them! But partnering with a nonprofit or other organization might be the perfect way to free up some space in your trade show storage area and give your branded items one last chance to get your brand some exposure. Here are some ideas of places you could consider donating your products to:

  • Classrooms: Writing utensils, notebooks, or leftover office supplies with an outdated logo will definitely go a long way in a classroom. If you don’t have a local school in mind, you can find a school online with this search tool.
  • Nonprofits: Places like animal rescues and shelters regularly hold yard sales to raise money, or make gift baskets with high-end items and host silent auctions at annual galas to raise funds and support programs. Consider donating any useful, unique, or higher-end items to help these fundraising efforts.
  • Events: Some places– like charities that hold 5ks to support the research of a specific disease or disability, or organizations like community gardens – hold community events to get people involved in their efforts. Consider “sponsoring” a 5k or other community event– offer your valuable swag (like headphones, tote bags, car chargers, or water bottles) as raffle prizes or participation incentives.
  • Thrift Shops: Offer your unused t-shirts, stuffed animals, toys, and tech products to a charity that can resell it to support their mission. You can use the Donation Town website to find a charity that will pick up your products or drop them off at a local thrift store.
  • Online: Places like FreeCycle help connect you to people in the community who have a specific need, or you can offer your products and see if someone has a need for them. You might just grow yourself some goodwill in the community, too!

4. Recycle

Recycling might be a last resort option because, as you can see, there are plenty of ways to reuse your trade show giveaways and keep the brand impressions going (somewhere in the distance, you can hear a marketer chanting “ROI! ROI!” quietly…). But sometimes you’ve got a lot of leftover promos that were made for a very specific event and no way to donate them. You can’t exactly give away sunglasses imprinted with ROB AND RACHEL’S SURPRISE SUMMER WEDDING at the next barbecue or hand out pens that say Dentist Symposium 2016 next year.

The good news is that most promo products are pretty easy to recycle. Some, like plastic cups, can be easily recycled in a regular ol’ community recycling can or dropped off at your local recycling center. Same goes for things like plastic water bottles, leftover notepads, flyers, and keychains – these can all head over to your recycling center.

There are even ways to recycle electronic promo products, also known as e-waste. While technology such as portable cell phone chargers, radios, and flashlights make our lives a lot easier, if not recycled properly these devices wind up in landfills. Unlike some items in landfills that may be biodegradable, e-waste is toxic and makes up about 70% of all toxic waste in the world. The good news is that there are recycling companies out there that specialize in e-waste recycling. Although technology can be recycled, it’s important to contact your local recycling facility for more details.

Some things require more specialized handling. Pens, for instance, are often made of several materials and can’t be recycled “as is.” Yale University has started a sustainability program to help make it easier to recycle things like pens and markers. You send a request, they send you a label, you collect your unusable pens, pencils, markers, and caps, and send them back to Yale!

Polyurethane –the stuff stress balls are made out of – also requires special recycling. Rethink Recycling has a feature that allows you to find a special processing location, including places that will pick up your recyclable products.

With a little bit of time and research, you can find a way to recycle just about any product or material and never worry about them ending up in a landfill.

Leftover promotional products don’t have to go to waste! There are plenty of ways to make sure you get some more brand exposure, do some good, or ensure your items get responsibly recycled. Next time you’re facing the possibility of having a lot of trade show goodies on your hands after the show is over, get creative with ways to find your branded products new homes.

About the author

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is a promo expert with over three years of experience in the industry. Her passion for writing has led to a BA in English & Communications from Aurora University and work published for the Advertising Specialty Institute and The Bolingbrook Sun Times.