Holiday gifts are another method to build business

Monday, November 18, 2002

NEW YORK -- Buying holiday gifts for customers can be a boring chore for a small business owner, and one that in the end brings little return on investment. Or, if approached creatively, it can be a great opportunity to cement relations with top spenders.

Mike Ballard, owner of Ballard Communications, a Las Vegas-based public relations firm, recommends that a business target customers in the same way it would target them with a product or service. He recalled a colleague who kept sending champagne to customers, some of whom didn't drink and returned the bottles.

"You have to know the audience," he said.

You also need to find ways to make your gift -- in reality, your business -- stand out from your competitors. That might mean abandoning the old standards, such as mugs or pens with your company name on them, or the usual baskets of fruit, cheese and crackers.

Ballard suggests sending your gifts soon, so you won't get lost in the shuffle.

At big companies where he's worked, "after the first one or two, the bosses who were the decision makers didn't even know what was coming in. ... A big food tray or basket just goes in the conference room," he said.

Ballard has sent cornucopias of food to his clients, and he's done it before Thanksgiving to be sure they take notice.

Some business owners buy items tailored to each customer.

Taneshia Nash Laird, owner of Posro Media in Princeton, N.J., finds gifts that are appropriate for each of her marketing firm's clients. For example, she'll send a gift certificate for a facial to a stressed-out customer, or a monogrammed tape measure to a construction company client.

It doesn't have to mean a year-end crunch, said Laird, who looks throughout the year for clues about what would make good gifts. "It's about keying into their interests," she said.

But some business owners have burned out buying gifts. Or, they believe customers would be just as happy to see money that would have gone toward a fruit basket or keepsake go to a worthwhile cause. So the companies make donations to charities, with acknowledgment cards sent to customers.

Thorp & Co., a Miami-based public relations firm, covers most of its gifts through a donation to Heifer International, an organization that gives good food- and income-producing animals to families in need.

President Patricia Thorp said her company sent expensive holiday cards for years, but "in a world where there are so many challenges and so many people struggling, shouldn't we put that money to better use?"

Johnston Wells Public Relations in Denver has taken a very different route, sponsoring holiday music shows on public radio and offering clients the opportunity to record messages for family, friends and employees to be aired during the shows.

Account executive Ann Dickerson said it's not that expensive to sponsor a show on public radio, and her firm's customers have gotten a big kick out of appearing on radio.

Free apple pies

These ideas work for firms with a relatively small number of customers or clients. But even if you have hundreds of customers -- say, if you're a retailer -- you can still show your appreciation in a special way to the people who spend the most at your establishment.

Dave Ratner, owner of Dave's Soda & Pet City, a store in Agawam, Mass., gives apple pies to the 500 best customers at each of his three stores. Ratner said he mines his database to determine who the top spenders are, and then mails postcards telling them to come in during the week before Thanksgiving to get their pies.

Ratner doesn't worry about customers miffed at not getting a pie -- "we are a firm believer in treating your best customers better than your other customers," he said -- but he also keeps some extras for the people who really pout.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: