More holiday shoppers are buying gifts based on color

— -- It doesn't really matter that Margie Leigh's granddaughter, Laura, got the pink iPod she so desperately wanted last Christmas — at age 4. For the now-5-year-old, pink is out this holiday, and purple is in.

Grandma in Kentucky will be buying her granddaughter in Virginia a purple iPod this Christmas for one reason — its color.

"I know it sounds crazy," says Leigh, who is retired. "But that's what she wants."

In the most economically depressing holiday season in decades, there's one buzzword — besides cheap — that's still got game at retail: color.

That's right. Bleak 2008 also happens to be the holiday season when shoppers want many of their gifts to be colorful. Or at least, a different color from last year's model. And not necessarily apparel: products such as electronics, appliances, kitchen décor, even luggage and their tags. IPods now come in a gazillion colors; so do cellphones and digital cameras. Ditto for laptops and home computers. Color is gaining traction for small appliances, such as blenders and popcorn poppers — and big ones, such as ranges.

"Color is the one area where consumers are saying, 'I'm going to indulge,' " says Marshal Cohen, retail guru at NPD Group. When Cohen advised retail clients about the 2008 holiday, his No. 1 suggestion for most was to expand color selection. Some are adding color and nothing else. Cohen says that's OK: "When you add color to a product, you stimulate the consumer's awareness that the version they already have is obsolete."

Color consultants aren't surprised.

While in a bleak economy, some companies and consumers are more somber in their choices — but a lot go the other way and embrace color. "People form a personal connection to a product in a color they like," says Jill Morton, head color consultant at Colorcom. This can be particularly critical, she says, "in times of doom and gloom."

Even in an atmosphere of lost jobs and dwindling 401(k) savings — or maybe because of it — vibrant colors symbolically and psychologically "speak to change," says color consultant Leatrice Eiseman.

Dude, it's a (lavender) Dell

It would be tough to find a company approaching this holiday with more new color choices than Dell.

Dell, which struggled like all computer makers through this year, is responding with a rainbow counterpunch.

A few months ago, it rolled out a series of colorful notebook computers (for up to $75 more than those in gray or black).

Late last month, Dell introduced the Inspiron Mini, a tiny laptop, in an assortment of colors, including "Cherry Red" and "Pretty Pink," with striking graphic designs. The colorful versions cost about $25 more.

For its full-size desktops, notebooks and minis, Boyd figures Dell has nearly 100 choices of colors, designs or pieces of graphic art.

"Dell's always been about giving customers what they want," says Ed Boyd, the design chief who worked for Nike before joining Dell last year. "Personalizing is now a requirement to play."

Color can be the key "differentiator" for a customer shopping for a computer, says Boyd. The reason a customer buys one computer instead of another may be because it's green, he says. "It's the same reason that Ford doesn't just make black cars anymore. The days of the utilitarian PC are over."

Adding color choice, or course, can add problems. When Dell started offering notebooks in a dozen colors last year, there were serious supply delays that angered some customers. This go-round, however, Boyd says Dell prepared better by staffing up.

There's no going back now. While black remains the most popular color, the reds, pinks and blues are selling well. There's even a Mini designed with real bamboo that's a hit in Japan.

IPod's not-so-golden oldies

Such consumer color devotion is a key element in iPod sales. Apple officials declined to comment, but NPD's Cohen says he's spoken with plenty of adult iPod owners who bought new iPods specifically to get a new color. "This boggles the mind," he says.

But it also jiggles the cash registers. And it's not just 5-year-olds who aren't into oldies for the color of their iPod.

Sally Trammer of Indianapolis admits to being one of them. Nearly five years ago, the senior systems analyst at Eli Lilly bought herself an iPod Mini specifically because it came in the color she craved: lime green.

Trammer was fully aware that this model stored far fewer songs than a full-size white or black iPod. "I didn't care, I just wanted to have that color," she says. She recalls overpaying, too — about $300. Then she purchased a fancy, lime-green leather case, to boot. "Regardless of what it cost, I knew I had to have it."

Earlier this month, while walking through Talbots, she spotted pink luggage tags, at $37 for two.

"I love pink," she says. She ignored a warning from her boyfriend that the tags are so nice, there's a chance they'll get swiped before her bags show up at baggage claim.

More creativity

Many others are clearly on board with color this holiday — and some have been for years:

• Dishes. It isn't necessarily bright colors that lead to hot sellers now. It's new colors.

That's one reason the two colors that venerable, very colorful Fiesta dinnerware rolled out this year are chocolate and ivory.

It wasn't until late September that Homer Laughlin China opted to offer Fiesta in chocolate. For one thing, some consumers had asked for chocolate (aka brown), says Rich Brinkman, sales and marketing chief. But also, "There are overwhelming challenges in the market," he says. "Our retailers are hurting, and the consumer is looking for a reason to purchase."

Some of the biggest names in retail are asking: Why not make that reason color?

• Cellphones. Big cellphone makers have to think about colors two to three years before a product comes to market. Motorola, for example, already is developing the color palette for its phones for 2011, says Kitty Suidman, senior manager for color and trend forecasting.

Two years ago, it tapped purple as an up-and-coming color. This fall, it worked with Verizon Wireless to launch a purple version of its Motorola W755 cellphone, previously available only in black. Now, purple is selling almost as well as black, says Suidman.

"Color broadens the reach of products," says Suidman, particularly in a tough economy. "If you introduce a second color, the reach increases significantly."

Black and silver are still dominant at rival Nokia. But its lineup also includes phones in blue, red, lime green, yellow, orange and pink.

Nokia's biggest visual and tactile changes this year are in materials, says Alastair Curtis, Nokia's design chief. That includes new combos of metals, rubbers and ceramics.

• Small appliances. Hamilton Beach's best seller, particularly at the lower end, is white, but its higher-end Eclectric line has taken off with color, including one dubbed Carmine Red (a deep red).

"We continue to develop colors to keep the line fresh," says Martin Brady, director of consumer marketing. "It's a way to create news at the shelf with the retailer and consumer."

• Large appliances. Upscale Viking Range is always rolling out new colors. The palette jumped from 14 to 24 for 2008.

Picking new ones is hard. "Every single color is a huge debate," says Brent Bailey, design director at Viking Range. But new colors can make an old product "look like a fresh product." Among this year's new hues: Pumpkin and Cotton White. Racing Red and Apple Red also were introduced in 2008.

"Color can make all the difference," he says. "I've had consumers come into trade shows who had to have cobalt blue — and nothing else — for their kitchen."

• Crayons. Sometimes a color can be made to seem new just by updating its name.

That's what Crayola did earlier this year when it nudged kids to create new names for eight of its old colors. Not new colors; just new names. Words that project upbeat emotions played a big role in the crayon color renaming this year.

A color formerly called laser lemon became "super happy." Vivid tangerine became "fun in the sun." Turquoise blue became "happily ever after."

Crayola CEO Mark Schwab says the color renaming is effective marketing — particularly in troubled times.

"Kids want their homes to feel warm, inviting, friendly and harmonious," says Schwab, whose company received more than 20,000 name suggestions for old colors. "People are looking for things that are uplifting."