From the November 1996 issue of Startups

Every holiday season, Mel Willis's customers' eyes light up when he arrives with Christmas gifts. Within minutes, the crinkling of cellophane fills the office as recipients open their presents--Willis's company mugs, each filled with M&Ms and a pen.

Many customers might be surprised to know that the cost of all this commotion is minimal for Willis, who spends just $4 a mug on this popular gift. Last holiday season it cost him under $250 to thank all his customers for their business.

"I thought at first that women would appreciate the mugs and candy the most, but I've found the guys like them just as much," says Willis, whose homebased Yorba Linda, California, company, Wastewater Technology Services, provides water treatment for heavy-industrial companies in the Los Angeles basin. He has given out the mugs since he started his business three years ago.

"People like the presents and have come to expect them," says Willis. "Gifts are good marketing. They keep your company name in front of your clients. Every time I visit a refinery, I see my company's logo on cups and pens all around the office."

Even more importantly, the giving of holiday gifts promotes good customer relations.

"People can't help but like you when you give them gifts," says Willis. "Getting a Christmas present appeals to the child in all of us. When you give gifts, it strengthens your relationship with clients and often prompts them to reciprocate by giving you more business."

Though popular, Willis's annual Christmas gift isn't complicated. He had company mugs and pens made up at a specialty wholesale manufacturer. Every December he simply buys M&Ms in bulk, fills the mugs, inserts a pen, covers the mugs with clear cellophane, and secures them with green, red and blue ribbon.

Many homebased businesses don't have the budget to send all their clients candy-filled mugs during the holidays. Fortunately, there are other innovative gift ideas homebased business owners can use--no matter how many clients they have--that won't drain their bank accounts and may even outshine their more well-heeled competitors.

 

  • Buy Bulk Items. Thousands of specialty-merchandise manufacturers have high-quality gifts for sale, such as pens, coffee mugs, drinking glasses, letter openers, calendars and clocks. Such merchandise can often be found at very reasonable prices, because manufacturers may have great quantities they need to sell, says Joi Faustini, owner of Splendor in a Basket, a gift-basket company located in Newport Beach, California.

"Find a good source for bulk orders, and you can pay just a few cents apiece for some items," says Faustini, "which will make it economically feasible to thank even hundreds of clients. It's also possible to have your company name and number imprinted on the gifts for a reasonable cost."

Locate specialty-merchandise manufacturers in the phone book by looking under giftware items (such as "glassware") and then searching for wholesale warehouses or distributors. You can also look in newspaper and trade magazine ads, or call the Chamber of Commerce in various cities and ask for recommendations.

Call the manufacturer and ask what they have available that would work as Christmas gifts. Some specialty-merchandise manufacturers have outlets or distribution centers you can visit to see their products. If you find something you like, ask how many you must buy in order to get a price break. To buy in bulk at wholesale prices, you may have to show your business permit or license.

Other places to locate high-quality items at a good price include membership warehouse stores and discount chains, which often carry overstock on high-end items. Some catalogs also offer bulk prices and can ship directly to your clients on your behalf.

 

  • Tap into Your Creativity. Once you have a number of inexpensive gift items to work with, use some imagination to spruce them up. This can be as simple as inserting a packet of hot chocolate into a company mug and tying a ribbon on the handle, to something as elaborate as employing a clever theme.

"A friend of mine, a caterer, bought cooking whisks in bulk, filled them with red and green chocolate kisses, and put a card on them that said, `We whisk you a Merry Kissmas,' " says Faustini. "It cost her just $1 apiece to do, and everyone just loved them."

 

  • Think Thanksgiving. Instead of waiting until Christmas to thank customers, why not give thanks when we all traditionally do so--at Thanksgiving time? This is the start of the holiday season, and gifts given early are more likely to be noticed.

Faustini gives out gifts to her customers at this time of year to show her gratitude. Some good ideas include small cornucopia baskets filled with homemade bread and muffins, a caramel apple or caramel popcorn, or even a chocolate-candy turkey, which can be purchased at candy shops or, for those with the time and inclination, created at home with confectioner's chocolates and candy molds. Decorate the basket with a gold, plaid or rust-colored ribbon. Ready-to-pop corn on the cob also makes an easy, inexpensive gift. Simply wrap the cob in cellophane and finish off with a decorative bow.

 

  • Give Away Give-Aways. In many lines of work, promotional giveaways or industry samples are commonly given from manufacturers and distributors to retailers throughout the year. Jody Rook, owner of the Reston, Virginia, homebased AeroBasics, which sells men's and women's work-out wear at trade shows, expos and health and fitness centers, suggests stockpiling these samples during the year and using them as gifts to your clients or customers at Christmas.

"It costs you virtually nothing to give away promotional items you've received, and it shouldn't bother the manufacturers who gave you the items, because it's a form of cross-marketing which also benefits them," says Rook, who regularly receives complimentary items such as T-shirts, water bottles, sweatshirts and socks. "The products are usually of high quality, and I'm proud to give them as gifts."

To encourage such give-aways, Rook suggests asking vendors if they have any products for cross-marketing. "You'd be surprised at how much is available for free," she says. "Many companies have boxes of promotional items they'd be happy to get rid of."

 

  • Personalize Whenever Possible. When distributing bulk items, take the time to personalize them in some way, according to a client's interests and tastes, and you'll make a lasting impression.

"If you are giving away 25 gift baskets, insert something in each basket that you're sure the recipient likes," says Mary Schick, a Portland, Oregon, homebased giftware and kitchenware sales representative. Finding out what those items are without letting the client discover your intentions may be tricky, but asking a client's secretary or co-worker is a good idea, and if all else fails, you can simply ask the client outright--he or she probably won't know why you've asked until the gift arrives. It's the thoughtfulness of taking the time to ask that counts. "The fact that you obviously thought about each person makes the gift much more special."

 

  • Try Food. Food is one of the most inexpensive, yet welcome, of presents. It's possible to create a food basket made up of inexpensive items bought in bulk at the supermarket or discount store. Some good ideas include fresh fruit, sparkling cider, microwave popcorn and coffee and tea assortments. Or, if you bake, you could delight clients with a batch of homemade fudge or brownies. Locate reasonably priced baking tins to hold the goodies and you'll have an instant hit.

 

  • Give Plants. Many customers will appreciate a winter-flowering bulb, a Christmas cactus or a poinsettia during the holiday season. Most wholesale nurseries will give you a very reasonable unit price at this time of year.

 

  • Send Personal Notes. If time or money constraints are too great this year, spend an evening writing personal notes on your Christmas cards, says Schick, who does this every year.

"I personalize each card by inquiring about a person's family or interests," she says. "Everything has become so impersonal and computerized that many people are grateful for this personal acknowledgment."

 

  • Pick up the Phone. An easy and inexpensive way to thank clients is to call to wish them a happy holiday, says Rook. "Clients don't always need a tangible object to know you appreciate their business," she says. "Many people will remember getting a friendly phone call in the middle of a hectic day more than a card or gift."

Saving on Mailing and Delivery Costs

How much you can save on mailing or delivery will depend on where your clients are located, how large or heavy the gift is, and how quickly you need delivery to take place. The following tips will help you keep delivery costs down:

 

  • Hand-deliver, if possible. Not only is handing out gifts inexpensive, it is a personal touch sure to be well-remembered.

 

  • Ask for a quantity discount from a delivery service. If many of your gifts will be going to the same location, you may be able to pay a reasonable flat fee for the delivery.

 

  • Do your own packing. Package everything yourself and take it to the post office or a UPS drop point, and you'll save a bundle on mailing costs.

Contact Sources

AeroBasics, (703) 925-0319.

Splendor in a Basket, 4341 Birch St., #108,

Newport Beach, CA 92660, (714) 833-9908.

Wastewater Technology Services, (714) 779-5543.