Nellie Carlen is always looking for an edge that will turn a corporate gift into something special. And, increasingly, she said, customized gift baskets provide that extra something.
"If a client likes golf, I'll make that the theme for the basket," said Carlen, who buys hundreds of corporate gifts each year for ISS Building Maintenance Inc., a Santa Ana-based janitorial firm. "I might add golf club covers, chocolate golf balls, a mug with a golf design and a nice golf shirt."
The idea of putting gifts into a basket is as old as legend.
"Everyone knows what Little Red Riding Hood took along when she visited Grandma," said Wally August, co-owner of FanciFull, a gift store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. "What's different now is how we package the gifts and what we put inside. The stereotype used to be booze in a basket or fruit tied up in a bow."
FanciFull, which caters largely to corporate clients in Hollywood, recently forwarded a six-foot coffin stuffed with gourmet goodies to the set of "Interview With the Vampire." A few years ago it sent violin cases stuffed with edibles to a crew working on "Godfather III."
Magazines aimed at entrepreneurs have targeted gift baskets as "one of the hottest businesses to launch in the 1990s," according to Liz Skelton, editor of Gift Basket Review, a trade magazine in Jacksonville, Fla.
Hard sales data is difficult to gather because the industry includes thousands of mom and pop operators. But Gift Basket Review estimates nationwide annual sales of about $700 million. Holiday orders accounted for more than half of annual sales for a third of respondents to a recent Gift Basket Review survey.
The magazine said corporate gift orders are the top sales growth category for the basket industry.
Corporate gift-givers prefer baskets because they're "safe gifts," said Howard Gorman, a Tustin-based gourmet confections broker who sells products to basket packagers. "You don't have to know someone's shoe size . . . and you usually can't go wrong with candy, wines, coffees and confections."
Lori Foster, owner of San Francisco-based Gifts A La Carte, caters almost exclusively to corporate clients. Though Foster wants to tempt taste buds with unique pastries, wines and candies, she takes care not to stray too far from the center and risk alienating gift recipients. "We have to exercise caution," Foster said. "We don't include unusual dressings, mustards or oils because that's not safe."
"We always ask our customers what (the recipient) likes and doesn't like," said Keri Dugan, owner of The Basket Case Inc., a Newport Beach gift shop. "We ask what he or she is like so we can make something special for them. A lot of times, we're so much more appropriate than flowers."
Packagers agree that safe doesn't have to mean boring.
"Some (baskets) are like those recyclable fruitcakes that make three or four stops before getting to their final resting place," joked Warren Daniels, executive vice president of Gourmet Gifts International, an Irvine-based company that supplies baskets to department and warehouse stores. "They get handed from one person to another, and another and another before anyone even takes the wrapping off."
Packagers turn to creative designs to ensure that gifts stop at their intended destination.
Gourmet Gifts' Cajun Cooking basket includes Creole seasonings, rice, beans and other fixings bundled up in a skillet. A Chinese dinner basket, complete with oil, skewers, chopsticks, recipes and fortune cookies, is packaged in a two-piece wok.
Hefty woks, skillets, running shoes, customized canvas bags and wicker picnic baskets provide more than just visual appeal and a utilitarian bent. "Gift baskets are a big impulse buy for consumers, and they usually equate (weight) with better value," said Bill Engel, a Los Angeles-based buyer with the Broadway, which has assembled its largest selection of gift baskets for the upcoming holiday season.
Basket packagers argue that gift baskets are more attractive than flowers, their major competitor. "Gift baskets also tend to be more personal," Daniels said. "We can offer a themed basket that appeals to just about anyone's tastes. And when the goodies are gone, you still have a skillet, a birdhouse or a wok."
"Gift baskets are getting bigger and bigger each year," said Tim Dean, president of Houdini Inc., a Fullerton-based basket packager that specializes in wine and gourmet foods. "People keep buying them because they're a nice gift. If you know someone likes coffee, you can easily personalize (a basket). It's an easy gift."