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corporate Gift Giving takes an upscale attitude. by Perkal

"Knowing what employer and clients will want can create a Happy Holiday for the promotional products distributor as well

What a difference a good economy makes.

Say you were toiling away in Victorian England, scratching entries into a ledger, your fingers curled up in cold. Say all you wanted for Christmas was the day off to spend with your family.

In the ghosts of Christmases past, you'd be lucky to get a lump of coal as a holiday gift from your boss.

But in Christmas present, no boss can afford to be a scrooge. With unemployment hovering around 3 percent, companies are luring workers with incentives, bonuses and gifts. They're being equally nice to clients.

""Corporations are recognizing the value of alternative forms of compensation. They're looking at other ways of creating incentives for employees or customers,"" says Doug Burkett, principal of New Hope, Minn.-based Nucom, Ltd., maker of Burk's Bay fine leather jackets.

Whereas poor Bob Cratchit was lucky to get a Christmas goose, today's workers might be the recipients of a $150 leather jacket or a golf shirt just like one worn by Tiger Woods. Clients might get an American Indian blanket sewn from a design pioneered by Pendleton Woolen Mills in 1908.

Great expectations

Promotional products distributors note that holiday gift giving is becoming more elaborate and expensive. Corporations that in past years might have contented themselves with pen and pencil sets for middle management now are handing out leather briefcases.

""To keep employees in this day and age, you need to give them a sense of pride in the company,"" says Barry Sokol, vice president of Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Perlmutter-Lubin, an advertising specialty company.

This means that workers aren't content to get a pair of socks screenprinted with the company logo for a holiday gift. They expect that a profitable company will share the wealth when it comes to gift giving.

Of course, this great expectation is older than ""A Christmas Carol."" The difference is that today's workers are in the position to demand that their expectations be fulfilled.

""It's the difference between getting a Rolex watch versus a Timex,"" says Tom Lamb, marketing director at Toronto based apparel supplier Ash City. ""It's all about perception. It's perceived value.""

Employers haven't been slow to pick up on this phenomenon. Sokol says he's seeing a ""bigtime shift to quality"" in the corporate gift-giving arena.

""I think companies are saying why scrimp and buy a cheap polo shirt when we can buy something that's really nice,"" he says.

""Really nice"" can translate into a respected brand name. Or it can mean an expensive fabric such as leather. Then there's something unique, such as a polar fleece robe.

What's key is that all-important perceived value. Employees like receiving wearables like the ones they see in retail stores; something that their friends and family will recognize as pricey.

'We're narrowing the gap between what's hot in retail and what's hot in ad specialty,"" Sokol says.

One area where the line is especially blurry is in leather jackets. They spell class, both in the retail and corporate world.

Love that Leather

Back before the days of sexism awareness and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), it was said that the way to a woman's heart was a fur coat. While that may still be true to some extent outside the workplace, oftentimes the way to both a female and a male employee's heart is a leather jacket.

""People love to have a leather jacket. It's a prestige item' says Neil Cooper, president of Neil Cooper LLC, an Irvington, N.J.-based manufacturer of leather jackets.

""Most people aren't experts in leather, but once they look at it and feel it, they start cooing, so to speak,"" he says.

The most common leather fabrications are pigskin, calfskin and lambskin.

Pigskin is the least expensive, but the fabric has a harsher feel.

Daryl Schumacher, vice president of ""id4u,"" a jacket manufacturer in Lancaster, Pa., says pigskin isn't as popular when it comes to corporate gift giving, mainly because it doesn't look classy or expensive enough.

""People in their 20s starting up the corporate ladder are going to want something very nice. They're not going to wear that pigskin.""

But for corporations on a low budget, dropping $120 or more on a lambskin jacket isn't conceivable.

Doug Burkett of Burk's Bay suggests the company's $80 to $85 ""huffed bomber"" jacket, where a buffing processes raises the nap of the leather and gives the jacket a nicer texture.

""It gives (companies) an opportunity to move into the leather category at a price that's reasonable' Burkett says.

Another way to capitalize on the perceived value of leather without bankrupting your stockholders is to buy baseball-style jackets with wool fronts and backs and leather sleeves.

Cowhide is a mid-range alternative. Cooper sells an Air Force-style jacket in calfskin for $150. The same style in lambskin runs about $180.

Despite its price, lambskin jackets remain a popular gift-giving choice. The reason is feel. Lambskin is very soft and smooth to the touch.

""It has less tensile strength, is lighter weight and is plumper,"" Cooper says.

As far as style, the bomber jacket remains the most popular, but an open-bottomed, hip-length style has become a big seller in the last year.

Schumacher calls id4u's open-bottomed jacket a James Dean-type style. It comes in a 36-inch length and has a small buckle with a strap on either side near the hem of the jacket.

Black remains the most popular color, followed by brown.

Burkett estimates that black bomber styles make up 75 percent of the promotional products leather jacket market.

Carry it, don't wear it

Don Robinette, president of Englewood, Colo.-based ProCorp Images, a promotional products distributor, says that ""leather jackets are a real nice gift for the companies that can afford it."" However, he adds that there are ways to give employees leather products that look classy but are less expensive.

Robinette says as the holidays approach, a top seller is Gemline's ""pad-folio,"" a zippered portfolio that comes in leather or microfiber and costs about $20 to $25 apiece.

Also popular are leather travel bags, saddlebags and briefcases, which generally run in the $50 to $75 range.

These are very good gifts for a company's customers. Robinette says, because when clients carry them it makes a corporate logo ""a little more visible.""

Fore for the holidays

Leather may equal class, but few things say old money better than golf.

Golf and corporate life are inextricably linked, to the extent where there are now business coaches who teach savvy employees how to both work and play on the golf course.

Consequently, high-end golf wear meets that magical perceived-value criteria so important in holiday gift giving.

Dan Guthrie, senior corporate sales representative at Antigua, says his company's promotional products shirts and jackets are the same as the ones for sale in pro shops or worn by golfers on the PGA tour -- except they're less expensive.

""We sell a sueded microfiber jacket for $85 to $90. In a pro shop, it's $200 to $225,"" Guthrie says.

High-end golf wear is distinguished by details such as double- or triple-stitched seams, fade resistance and extra buttons. Ash City offers some shirts that are triple mercerized, which is a chemical and heating process that smoothes the yarn and gives the shirt a softer hand. Ash City's II Migliore golf shirts feature European styling, including a longer collar, and retail for $110 to $120, Lamb says.

As far as style goes, Guthrie says the most popular golf shirts and polos are ""pretty conservative -- solid with trim on the collar and cuff.""

Perlmutter-Lubin's Sokol says this year, the shirts he's seeing are a ""little bit different from what I've seen in the past -- things like a herringbone texture with a jacquard collar.""

Colors are subtle, he says. ""There are tone-on-tone imprints -- colors that just don't pop out at you.""

Microfiber remains the fabric of choice in casual jackets. Guthrie says a good corporate gift is Antigua's reversible microfiber windshirt, which sells for $50 and can be embroidered with a company logo on each side.

Something different

For companies that have ""done jackets 10 times before"" and are looking for newer, different gifts, Mitchell Fersten, president of Montreal's Great Canadian Cotton Co., recommends robes, shower wraps and polar fleece bags and blankets.

GCCC, the towels and robes division of headwear maker Fersten, Inc., sells a terry velour robe in the high $30s to mid-$40s range, and a polar fleece robe in the mid $30s. For companies that balk at giving employees something as non-traditional as a robe, Fersten points out that robes have great perceived value.

""Retail, you'll see them at $125 to $150,"" he says.

Another option is terry velour shower wraps, which are basically towels with elasticized tops, closed with Velcro and featuring a patch pocket.

At $12 to $15 a wrap, they're a good gift for employees who like to visit health clubs, Fersten says.

Great Canadian also sells polar fleece blankets and matching bags. Blankets are $14.50 and bags are $4.

Blankets can be excellent corporate advertising. First of all, employees and clients are pretty much guaranteed to use them outside the office. Also, says Bill Nance, manager of the blanket division at Portland, Ore.-based Pendleton Woolen Mills, ""blankets have a broader use -- man, woman or children.""

Pendleton sells a $50 stadium blanket that can also double as a motor robe. It also sells a high-end American Indian blanket, at $150 to $175.

Pendleton's flannels remain less popular for corporate gift giving. ""People might not want to be a billboard or a sandwich sign in a $75 shirt,"" Nance says. But companies like Pendleton's $18 muffler.

""You can embroider a logo or sew on an emblem,"" Nance says.

Vicky Uhland is a Denver-based writer and a frequent contributor to Wearables Business.

Mix and match gift giving

Especially for companies with small holiday budgets, creative packaging can give an inexpensive gift a high perceived value.

Golf packages are popular: a shirt or jacket with a sleeve of balls, tees or an umbrella.

Pair a couple small leather accessories, such as a portfolio and a key- chain. Or try a polar fleece blanket with a latte coffee mug. Blankets also work well as travel accessories: joined with a leather luggage tag and slippers, they're a welcome gift for a frequent flyer.

If money is no object

Think spending $180 on a lambskin bomber jacket as an executive gift is going all out? Certainly not by Neiman Marcus standards.

The Dallas-based high society retailer has more than 600 gift ideas in its 1999 Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, including perhaps the ultimate executive gift: A Boeing 737 Business Jet.

The jet, complete with a custom interior, is yours for just $42-$47 million. If that's a little much, you can get the unfurnished version for a mere $32.25 million.

If that still seems a little high, even for that most affluent corporate client, Neiman offers a white gold briolette diamond necklace, 181 carats, for $450,000. Or a plot of ecologically endangered land named for a loved one for all eternity can be had for $200,000.

That $180 leather jacket is looking better all the time.

For gift decorating, less is more

When it comes to decorating a pricey new employee or client gift, understand is the way to go.

After all, unless the recipients are NASCAR fans, they probably won't appreciate a leather jacket with a giant corporate logo on the back.

""A lot of customers are uncomfortable personalizing leather,"" says Doug Burkett, principal of Burk's Bay.

Instead, a company may opt for a zipper pull that features a corporate logo. Or it could choose a more temporary measure: customized hand tags.

Other unobtrusive options include screenprinting or embroidering the jacket lining with corporate logos or mottoes, or to sew in a corporate label. Burk's Bay often puts a personalized label in a leather jacket that features the recipient's name and perhaps some designation like ""Top Sales Associate 1999."" Another popular add-on, especially if several people in the company are getting a leather coat, is to have each individual's name sewn on an inside label along with an exclusive number, like ""6 of 12.""

Embroidery still remains popular, but in a subtle way. Burkett recommends tone-on-tone embroidery (a black-threaded logo on a black jacket). Left front remains the most frequent location, but there's a growing demand for embroidery on cuffs and collars, another nod to the subtle.

Because some leathers, especially lambskin, can tear easily, the best bet for embroidery is a non-complicated logo that has larger letters.

Debossing (imprinting a flat design) is infrequently used on leather, manufacturers say. But embossing (imprinting a raised design) is a popular choice.

""It's come pretty much full circle. It's amazing how many corporate people that were initially thinking about embroidery switch to embossing,"" says Daryl Schumacher, vice president of id4u.

Embossing can be in color or can be color-free - known as blind embossing.

""Blind embossing is good when you don't want to look like a billboard, don't like to be so flashy,"" Schumacher says.

""Color-fill embossing is good for things like key tags or luggage tags.""

Schumacher says embossing is inexpensive, especially for large orders. A company pays to have a die formed in a corporate logo, and that's the only cost. Id4u's fee for a small die is $75; $250 for a full-back die.

Schumacher says a combination of embossing and embroidery works well for varsity-style jackets: The leather sleeves are embossed and the wool front or back is embroidered. Or companies can opt to dye the wool and the leather to match corporate colors.

Another option is cut-and-stitch embroidery: sewing together pieces of leather to form a design.

As far as cotton or microfiber shirts and jackets go, embroidery remains the overwhelming choice. Location can be left front, front or back collar, or cuff.

But logos don't have to be limited to corporate identities, points out Dan Guthrie, senior corporate sales representative at Antigua.

Antigua is licensed for several sporting events, including the Super Bowl and the PGA Championship. For workers in Denver, say, a golf shirt embroidered with a Broncos Super Bowl logo can be a holiday gift with an extremely high perceived value (well, for 1999 maybe only sorta-high perceived value).

But be careful. The NFL and some other pro sports organizations have strict licensing rules that can prevent a company from placing both its own logo and a team logo on the same item of clothing.

When it comes to accessories, debossing is a good choice for canvas bags, says Don Robinette, president of Englewood, Colo. Advertising specialty company ProCorp Images.

On items such as blankets, logos are usually embroidered and can be as large or small as the corporation chooses. Other options, says Pendleton Woolen Mills' Manager of the Blanket Division Bill Nance, are an embroidered phrase on the label or a sewn-on emblem.

Mitchell Fersten, president of Great Canadian Cotton Co., says in the last six months to a year he's seen two-inch pewter emblems sky-rocket in popularity as a form of decoration for blankets.

And for those corporations that prefer a subtler touch, blanket cases or carriers can be embroidered or screenprinted.

"

This article was published on Sunday 03 December, 2006.

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