Building small business: Gift giving ideas

When Patricia Smith gives holiday gifts to her clients, she doesn’t go the traditional routes, selecting something from a catalog or Web site. Her suppliers are her clients themselves.

Smith, owner of Denver-based OnTarget Public Relations LLC, has given clients T-shirts from the women’s outdoor clothing firm she represented and bath salts manufactured by another company she’s done projects for. Her holiday cards are printed by yet another customer, a stationery firm.

“I’m not overtly selling the product, but saying I believe in what my client is doing,” Smith said.

Consider buying gift items from your clients to support their business.

* Shun things like mugs. Get creative. One company is sending candy with prepaid gas station cards.

* Make it easy by using the Internet to buy and ship gifts.

That gives all of Smith’s clients the message that she’s committed to them and their products and services. Moreover, she said, “they appreciate that they get something unusual.”

It can be tempting for a small business owner to go the quick-and-dirty route of holiday gift giving to clients: mugs or other knickknacks imprinted with the company name, fruit baskets, oversized tins of popcorn. But do that, and you miss out on some great marketing opportunities.

The whole point of giving gifts to clients or customers is to let them know how much you appreciate not just their business, but how highly you think of them. Giving the obvious doesn’t convey that message, but getting creative about gifts absolutely will.

Neil Vineberg, who owns a public relations firm in Westhampton, N.Y., looks for gifts that will help his clients in their work.

“I think I know my clients, and I think I know what will appeal to them,” he said. “They’re hard-driving, entrepreneurial types, techie types, a lot on the road.”

So he tends to give iPods and USB portable drives to the top executives of the firms he represents. “I want the gift to demonstrate that I’m aware of some of the challenges” they face, said Vineberg, owner of Vineberg Communications Inc.

“The gift has to be reflective of who you are as a person, and it needs to demonstrate that you’ve put a lot of thought and care into it,” he said. He dismisses gifts like mugs as impersonal.

Vineberg doesn’t overlook his clients’ staffers; they get big food baskets to spread the good will around.

Businesses with a limited number of clients or customers can find it easier to buy customized or individual gifts. It gets harder to do that when you have a longer list of recipients.

Ervin &Smith Advertising in Omaha, Neb., has a big client base, approximately 500. Kristen Petrick, director of public relations for the firm, said Ervin &Smith tiers its presents, giving larger, more personalized gifts to general marketing directors and other top executives at client companies.

But the company also strives for creativity in gifts for the rest of its contacts. This year, Ervin &Smith is sending tins of candy with prepaid gas station cards. But each tin will still be as personalized as possible, with an ID card attached to a key chain.

One of the keys to being creative about client gifts is to start shopping early. The later you begin thinking about gifts, the less time you have to pick out something unique and order it. And if you do decide to buy the same gift for all your clients, like Ervin &Smith, you should start shopping soon, or you may find supplies running low.

Remember that the Internet can be your greatest ally. You can probably do all your shopping online in less than a day and get the gifts sent by mail, UPS or FedEx. If you decide to follow Smith’s example and choose other customers’ products for your gifts, they might be willing to do the packaging and sending for you.

You can also turn to corporate gift services. They’ll cost you extra, but if you just can’t get creative enough, they can help you. But remember, to really help build your company’s relationships, your customers and clients need to sense that it was you who ultimately chose the gift.

Building Small Business is a weekly column on the topic by the Associated Press.

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