How Do I... Give a Gift on a Busy Schedule?

Financial advisers often have sage advice. When I went to see one a few years ago, she told me the number one thing that people forget to include in their annual budgets was the cost of gifts throughout the year.

Between birthdays, babies and the holiday season, an individual or small business can often spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on gifts and cards annually.

So how do you get control over saying "thank you"?

If you prefer the "time is money" approach , you can turn to gift businesses like Rockville, Md.-based Our Gift Biz, or Sundry Things and Services , a personal shopping and concierge service, in Annandale, Va. These small firms will do your shopping for you so you're not spending hours trolling the mall trying to unearth distinctive gifts for clients.

Our Gift Biz's Becky Briggs. (Photo courtesy of Becky Briggs)

"[Busy professionals] do not have the time to go out and procure gifts. It's just not on their to-do list and when it is, it usually falls to the bottom of the list and that sometimes means the gift given is not as meaningful as it could be," said Becky Briggs, who's the only full-time employee at Our Gift Biz. Despite her idea, she doesn't enjoy shopping, so she leaves the task to her part-time employees. Her staff fluctuates from about three to 10 employees, depending on the workload.

The majority of Deborah Mills's clients from Sundry Things and Services are busy moms or people in their 60s and older who "need a little bit of help getting things done," she said. One of her clients is a husband-and-wife team in their 60s who run a small business and don't have time to purchase gifts.

Deborah Mills of Sundry Things and Services. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Mills)

For small businesses, "setting a budget is key and that includes accounting for your money and time," said Mills who also works as a party planner. She charges $30 per hour or by the day if the job will take more than five hours. Our Gift Biz does not charge a flat fee per client. Rather, it acts like a retailer by selling a basket, for example, at a higher cost than wholesale.

Briggs has found that baskets are popular, especially for offices because employees within the office can share the gifts.

This year, she has found that there's a want for more organic products including teas and chocolates. Our Gift Biz has a relationship with a chocolatier in Washington who makes chocolate for her firm per order.

"When you go to a competitor that's in a mall like a Harry and David's or a Costco they've made these baskets up ahead of time," she said, adding "that's not to say they won't be good or look nice but there are alternatives to that."

A surprise hot gift basket item this year is seasoned salts especially from Hawaii, she said.

Mills notes that Sundry Things and Services clients have been requesting personalized and monogrammed items, like on a sterling silver pin from Tiffany and Co.

Most of Briggs's clients opt for customized gift baskets without items that need to be refrigerated. For example, a small firm might contact her and say I have five clients, this is what they do, this is what they like and I can spend $300 total. Briggs's firm would put together gift baskets or purchase and wrap gifts for those clients and deliver them if necessary. She notes that it's tough to put together a "really nice" basket for less than $65.

She advises that it's important to find out even a little something about the gift recipient. "A lot of times these details may come out in conversations held throughout the year," she said.

If a firm decides to send a gourmet basket, include something that is considered a "leave behind," suggests Briggs. So, for example, once the edible products are eaten, the recipient will have something to remember the gift giver by - like a cake platter with a server.

She said entertaining at home has had a strong resurgence since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. To that end, she suggests giving someone a gift that they can use repeatedly at home so that the client likely will remember you when they use it.

"Some of the things we do for clients is to find pieces of porcelain that go from the microwave or the oven straight to the table, or perhaps napkins and a pate knife."

Something to consider in the corporate gift-giving world is to be sure you're not crossing the line of becoming too familiar with a client. For example, it's probably not a great idea for a man or a woman to give pajamas to a client of the opposite sex.

And don't forget the "oops I apologize" gift, advises Briggs. "Sometimes when you've made a mistake, letting someone know that you didn't mean to misspell their name, for example, can be helpful," she said.

Small businesses wishing to thank their employees might consider gifts with company logos. Pia Cantoni, president of Swag based in Alexandria, Va., says that most smaller companies say they don't have a budget for promotional items like logo-emblazoned coffee mugs or water bottles to give as gifts to employees or clients, but she does have some imaginative clients.

One small firm in Fredericksburg, Va., prides itself on allowing employees to work from home. Cantoni found a supplier for the company so it can give its staffers luxurious robes embroidered with the company logo, to reflect that they can work "even while wearing their pajamas."

But the number one solution, and a cost-effective one, is a hand-written note, agreed both Briggs and Mills. (For her tongue-tied clients, Briggs's firm also helps "develop the right words to marry the sentiment.")

"If you're happy with something that someone has done, you need to tell them," said Briggs. "Set a time every week to do this, and it will do so much for your relationship with your clients."

By Sharon McLoone |  November 27, 2007; 9:35 AM ET How Do I...
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