"Promotional products distributors and suppliers alike spend most of the year thinking about product niches: how to sell more women's wear, for example, or more orders in outerwear, or they are looking to specialize their knowledge and efforts at the particular industries they serve.
But there is one niche that every end-user has in common: the holiday gift-giving season.
Whether it is to recognize outstanding employees for a job well done throughout the year, or to honor certain customers for their loyalty, to breed goodwill among prospective clients, or just to spread good cheer at the happiest time of the year, gift giving at the holidays can be one of the most strategic promotions a company does all year.
For PPDs, the holidays can also be one of the most lucrative selling seasons, as end-users are often motivated - or can be motivated - to buy, and also quite often price is less of an issue. While not complete by any means, Wearables Business has rounded up some examples of popular holiday gift-giving ideas from a variety of industry suppliers with just enough time left for PPDs to be helpful to their clients during the all-important season.
And, of course, a successful year-end can make any PPD's holiday a happy one.
The busy time
The holiday season is the busiest time of year for many suppliers with lines that lend themselves well to holiday gift-giving.
""It's definitely the strongest time of year for our business,"" says Norm Bishop, principal of Bishop - The Garment Company, a custom manufacturer of corporate outerwear based out of Vancouver, B.C. ""We offer a lot of things that are appropriate for that time of year.""
Neil Cooper, president of supplier Neil Cooper, LLC, an Irvington, N.J. manufacturer with an emphasis on leather flight jackets, says overall business is shaping up in a very positive way this season.
""Retail seems to be buying, distributors seem to be buying, and end users seem to be buying actively,"" Cooper says. ""And another good thing is we haven't had a lot of price resistance.""
At Baltimore-based supplier Towel Specialties, Director of Marketing Murray Siegel says the volume of this year's holiday gift business is ""too early to call.
""However, we did begin showing our new 180s Ear Warmers and Fleece Gloves at several of the trade shows this year and got a very good response. If sample orders are an indicator, these will be very popular this holiday season,"" Siegel says.
The 180s brand ear warmers and gloves were extremely popular last Christmas when they were introduced on a retail level. Siegel says Towel Specialties is the exclusive supplier for these products in the promotional products market, and they sell them decorated for about the same price or even less than they were sold blank at Nordstrom or Lord & Taylor.
While ear warmers and gloves may not be the first types of items that come to mind in the usually high-end holiday gift category, don't forget that usefulness and uniqueness are two important traits end users appreciate in a holiday gift.
Those same traits also apply to another type of product Towel Specialties sells a lot of as holiday gifts: robes.
""Our robes are often used by business-to-business accounts who are looking for something distinguishable and lasting that they can give to their top clients,"" Siegel says.
He continues that financial institutions, insurance agencies, and real estate brokers looking to make a quality impression make good potential customers. ""We also find many sales organizations (for both tangible and intangible goods) will provide robes at end-of-year sales meetings held off-premises. While food gift baskets are nice - I love getting them - our robes last for many years. They are also not the kind of gift that everyone gets,"" Siegel says.
At Colorado Trading & Clothing Co., a recently introduced super-soft fabric called Divinity Micro Chenille has proven very successful in blankets and robes, and will soon be available in sweaters silhouettes.
""The micro chenille has been the hottest thing we've done in a long time. It's just been amazing,"" says Colorado Trading's Tina Schmitt.
While true chenille is made of acrylic, the Divinity Micro Chenille is made of polyester. ""It has all the softness of chenille and cotton, but all the benefits of polyester,"" Schmitt says. ""It doesn't shrink or stretch and it's easy to wash.""
As it is selling well as a holiday gift, Schmitt says it has also done very well in the resort market because it is something fresh in the blanket and robe category.
For bigger gift programs, one might consider Colorado Trading's fleece blankets. Schmitt says the price has come way down on the fleece blankets, which they sell a half-million of annually. They are available embroidered, with a strap and all packaged up for ""an unbelievable price,"" Schmitt says.
The last minute
""In some ways the holidays are kind of frustrating,"" says Doug Burkett, president of Burk's Bay, the leather outerwear supplier that is part of the broader PremiumWear stable of sportswear, outerwear and accessories based in Minnetonka, Minn. ""It's kind of a last-minute business for me. People are working on programs for promotions that are kicking off now.
""I know that when the (holiday) season arrives,"" he adds, ""they'll be thinking about leather. (The holidays are) the most important time of the year; a major part of our business is done between October and December.""
Burkett says the importance of the holiday season for PPDs is in reward programs, as many end-user clients use the holiday time to thank key accounts and top-producing employees for all the business during the year.
""The incentive programs for employees,"" Burkett notes, ""are definitely bigger during the holiday season. We don't know if they are new incentive programs or more redemptions for programs run earlier, but my guess is that it's more of both.""
Burkett says that it is important for him - and other suppliers - to work with sales people and PPDs to remind customers how the products can be used. He instructs his own sales people to go out on PPD calls to end-users and, at this time of the year, keep the idea of gift-giving up front in the thinking.
For Burk's Bay, the items that most often end up in gift programs, says Burkett, are two jacket styles. The Drum-Dyed Bomber, style 108, is a cowhide bomber with a zip-in/zip-out Thermolite liner that is very popular this time of year. The style sells to PPDs for around $150. Also, the Lamb Driving Jacket, style 802, is popular, and Burkett says it is more of a ""James Dean-type jacket,"" featuring an open bottom and leather cuffs. It goes wholesale for around $115.
""What makes leather so special,"" he says, ""is that leather is a completely unique material. It is warm in winter, cool to wear in the summer, it is reasonably light-weight and it absorbs moisture.""
Making a statement
A few stalwart suppliers in the business have come to see the holiday season as paramount to annual sales and, as such, go the extra mile for the gift-giving season.
Such a supplier is Leed's, the bag and accessories manufacturer based in New Kensington, Penn., the 10th largest supplier in all of the promotional field as measured by ASI.
Last fall, according to Steve Gelernter, national sales manager for corporate sales at Leed's, the company produced a flier brochure specific to the holiday season and the response was so great that for 2002 Leed's has produced an entire Gifts catalog. The company is using the 24-page holiday gift guide to launch a new line of business executive accessories and is reporting a tremendous response.
""Obviously, a bag can be a gift,"" says Gelernter. ""But we've shifted to try and put together sets. Our PPD customers are definitely looking for ways to create a lasting impression for gifts, and award, recognition. We've had a great response to this.""
Gelernter says the new sets include desk padfolios, coordinated business cases and duffle bags, calculators, desk clocks and writing instrument sets.
Gelernter says that Leed's this year has 30 pens in the gift guide, up from five last year, in a move he describes as a natural extension to the company's padfolio business. And he points out that the new gift set business comes at very good price points, citing the example of a $25 set including a calculator, desk clock and matching pen ""that an established supplier has out for $36.
""The sets come in one complete, easy-to-sell set,"" he adds. ""Packaging is very important.""
In addition to the new accessories and sets, Leed's has also recently come out with a line of Cutter & Buck logoed items, including business cases, luggage tags, writing pads, amenities kits and other items.
Also geared up for the holiday season at Leed's is a Sure Ship program designed to meet those inevitable last-minute gift-giving needs. With Sure Ship, Leed's is offering to ship anything in its entire line in a day with no rush charge if the PPD meets a short list of restrictions.
The personal touch
Due to the personal nature of most holiday gifts, more customization and personalization is the norm. While stock items can be transformed into holiday gifts via special packaging and a card, often circumstances warrant going the extra mile and ordering custom products. Or at the very least personalizing a stock item by monogramming the recipient's name or initials.
#8220;We have always permitted customers to have robes and blankets either monogrammed or personalized. In 2002, we added a new option, where customers can get these products sent out in a gift box with a custom printed ribbon, as well,"" says Towel Specialties' Siegel.
Neil Cooper has found monogramming to be a popular request on leather jackets being used as gifts. On a program his company did recently through a distributor for Atlas Airlines, they bought leather jackets for the pilots. The program was such a success that it has been expanded to include other personnel at the airline.
""Every product that we do is highly customized,"" Cooper says. ""On the Atlas Air jackets, they did a company logo on the lining and removable lining, personalized it with the pilot's name, and put an eyelet on the left front chest so the pilots could put their wings on it.""
Norm Bishop says a lot of companies like to give out jackets with private labels during the holiday season, which is no problem for a custom house. And as a custom house, they also don't worry about being out of stock at the end of the year.
""We're never out of a size, style or color at the holidays because we haven't made it yet,"" Bishop says.
He also says if a distributor's client just can't find what they want in the industry but has found exactly they want at retail, they can bring it in and it can essentially be duplicated.
Colorado Trading's Divinity Micro Chenille is available blank or embroidered. ""It's kind of like embroidering on fleece. The embroidery sinks in. You have to beef up the stitch count a little, but it's really pretty,"" Schmitt says.
You still have time
In October, many distributors are knee deep in the holiday selling season. But if you're one of those procrastinating distributors who is just starting to dip your foot in the holiday gift water, there's no need to panic just yet.
""You can order for the holiday period up until the end of November,"" says Neil Cooper. ""October, November into early December is peak holiday gift season.""
Depending on the amount of personalization or customization required, most apparel suppliers can turn orders around inside of four weeks, even at the end of the year.
""Depending on the quantity, it's never really too late for Christmas,"" says Siegel. ""We can turn small orders around in a matter of days. We also find a lot of customers giving the gifts after Jan. 1, when the holiday rush is over and they still want to show the appreciation.""
According to Norm Bishop, everybody wants their holiday orders in by Dec. 15. That means if you order from Bishop, you'd better have your order in at the beginning of December if you need it by the 15th.
""We're a custom house that turns things around in a couple of weeks. There's just not a lot of people that can turn it around that fast,"" Bishop says.
Some PPDs - and end-users, apparently - have jumped on the holiday buying bandwagon early this year, according to Andy Hilton, head of corporate sales for Lenexa, Kan.-based Gear For Sports, a supplier to promotional marketplace through of limited distribution of select PPDs.
Around August 10, it was like night and day,"" says Hilton. ""We really struggled through summer, but then we started quoting on big orders - lots and lots of outerwear, fleece, anything related to cold weather. I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said that we quoted 20 to 25 orders that were more than 2,500 units.""
Hilton attributed these orders to PPDs planning for the holiday gift-giving season, and he believes PPD end-users are upgrading this year with their holiday gifts, offering their clients something more than in years past.
""Maybe giving somebody a coat is more wholesome or utilitarian than the exotic stuff (they gave) in past years,"" he said. ""When you take a decent pique shirt with embroidery, outerwear isn't much higher (in price). So for ten bucks more they're saying 'let's step up and do something special.""
Popular choices for Gear For Sports this year include The Avalanche, a longer jacket for colder weather with a shell made of 100 percent polyester dobby with a polyurethane coating, and featuring a fleece lining with a mesh overlay. There is also a lined hood concealed in a stand-up collar. The Avalanche comes equipped with an interior CD player pocket with an interior connection for headphones. There is also an interior cellular phone pocket.
Also popular this year is the firm's Victory Blanket, a 58"" x 60"" blanket that is 100 percent polyester/rayon Bavarian fleece with an anti-pill finish on one side, and 100 percent nylon with a polyurethane coating on the other side.