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Corporate Gifts—A Desk Calendar Won't Cut It This Year

Tuesday, 9 Nov 2010 | 10:48 AM ET

Corporate-gift giving is tiptoeing back into the holiday scene this year, but companies are putting special effort into the gifts they send in order to establish a more emotional connection with their customers.

Thomas Northcut | Digital Vision | Getty Images

Instead of generic wines and paperweights, customization is the name of the game this season. Whether it’s a message etched onto clever desk gadgets or a pre-paid trip to the client’s favorite location, companies are making their gifts harder to forget, and they are willing to spend more to do so.

“Businesses are getting back into the mode of spending again,” said Terry Keating, vice president of sales at E-Corporategifts.com. “It almost feels like they’ve been saving their money and saving their money and now they don’t know what to do with it.”

According to the 2010 American Express Open Small Business Holiday Monitor, 44 percent of managers surveyed said they intend to send clients gifts, with the average price of these gifts jumping to $740, up from $455 last year and $457 in 2008.

The survey shows a shift toward so-called unique gifts—which will be given by 12 percent of the managers surveyed, up from 7 percent in 2009. About 13 percent will give food baskets, which is about flat with the year-ago period. But the number of managers giving a card or calendar tapered off to 6 percent.

"Businesses are placing a greater premium on communicating to customers that they matter...sending a strong message that you know them and you put effort into thinking about them." -American Express Open, Alice Bredin

One big trend is offering intangible and experiential gifts, which is becoming a popular way for more progressive companies to stay top-of-mind with their clients, said Dana Holmes, trend editor at Gifts.com. These gifts range from a trip to the spa to sports tickets, and they show you know your client and are making that emotional connection. This shift is one reason the average gift price has climbed this year.

"Businesses are placing a greater premium on communicating to customers that they matter," said Alice Bredin, small-business adviser to American Express Open . "The uptick in spend points toward managers believing that it's never been more important to give customer gifts and to make sure it's done well... sending a strong message that you know them and you put effort into thinking about them."

That's a shift from recent years, when the tough economic climate let to bigger ticket items, but fewer recipients, said Keating. He said, it has been “very strange to see higher prices, higher quantities, people ordering sooner,” and with extra attention to detail.

“People are really discriminating in what they’re looking to buy,” Keating said. “They’re being more careful with the money they’re spending,” and even requesting samples to make sure they get what they see.

On his site, Keating says he is seeing more visitors clicking on more items. Browsing time has not only shot up from an average of five minutes to 40, but also resulted in more purchases.

Holiday orders trickled in as early as July, which Keating suspects is a way for gift-givers to avoid shipping gifts directly from the vendor. Instead, they can get a hold of the gift, wrap it themselves, and personally present it to clients to make a bigger impact.

Overall, gourmet foods and wine continue to rule corporate presents, representing about a third of the business gift market. According to market research firm Packaged Facts, about $2.7 billion worth of food was presented as corporate gifts in 2009, a 3.8 percent increase from 2007.

In the past year, high-end chocolatier Godiva has expanded its online offeringsto include baked goods, as businesses—which tend to place orders online—seek more bundling variations and special packaging.

“We actually have seen a bit of an uptick for this holiday season already,” said Lauri Kien Kotcher, Godiva’s chief marketing officer. “Things really fell off starting in 2008, and 2009 was a little better, but now, people are coming in earlier than they did last year.”

While consumables are lower-ticket items that can stir up positive sentiment, a slew of alternatives have emerged as companies push the envelope to stand out from the competition.

“Of the month” club gifts have picked up steam, where clients receive a monthly subscription to a growing array of items, from wines and hot sauces, to movies and cigars.

“Companies see these have more legs as far as marketing dollars go, since you’re repeatedly in front of the client year around,” Holmes said.

Charitable giving on behalf of clients was one of the hottest gifts last season, and the trend is “definitely not going anywhere,” Holmes said. This year, instead of making contributions straight to a charity, sites like Just Giveallow companies to send customized gift cards for clients to allocate to causes of their choice.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com

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