The end of this year may be unlike anything we’ve seen before, but don’t give in! It’s more important than ever to show employees and customers that they’re appreciated.
Year-end celebrations are meant to commemorate all the good times and successes of the past year. But clearly no one’s in a mood to celebrate all that’s happened in 2020. “We’re traumatized,” says a chief strategy officer for marketing, sourcing and compliance at a Top 40 distributor in Los Angeles. “We’ve been through a lot. We haven’t been connected, we haven’t been together.”
The fourth-quarter gifting season has always been promo’s time to shine. Distributors and suppliers could count on the rush of end-of-year orders to lock in a successful, profitable year. This year? There’s only uncertainty. Of course, there’s the looming specter of prolonged shutdowns that have crippled business for months.
But what will those year-end celebrations look like – if there are any at all? Without in-person events, how will companies recognize and show their appreciation to hardworking employees and customers who weathered There are ways to do it, say distributors and suppliers, and it’s important that gifting and recognition still take place, especially this year. Yes, customers’ budgets have been slashed, so distributors will need to tap into their creativity, sourcing connections and long-term relationships with suppliers to help end-buyers find solutions challenging situations this year and stuck by them? Promo can help companies connect their employees and prepare for 2021
Two Little Words: ‘Thank You’
With health and business challenges and slim budgets, who feels like celebrating? While it’s sure to be scaled back and more conservative than previous years, gift-giving this year will play a critical role in acknowledging, recognizing and thanking people. If 2020 taught us one thing, it’s that we’re more than employees or clients; we’re people, with real human concerns. A little gift to say thank you goes a long way.
A director of national accounts at a Top 40 distributor in Sterling, IL is starting to help clients with appreciation gifts for their employees. “They worked through the pandemic, took pay cuts and went on furlough, while staying loyal and often doing things outside their job description to help keep the business going,” he says. “Recognition and retention will be big topics this year.”
In years past, high-end awards for star employees and donors dominated the Q4 gift scene. This year, without in-person events, recognition and thank-you gifts will be smaller and more utilitarian, much of it drop-shipped to private homes as custom kits or “parties in a box.”
“Trophies are really for recognition in front of peers,” says Rena Ashfeld, vice president of sales at Webb Company, Eagan, MN. “We’re not going to see ceremonies, cocktail parties or dinners, but people will appreciate high-value, useful items at many different price points.”
It’s definitely going to be a different feel from past fourth quarters. But it’s also an opportunity for end-buyers to comfort their recipients and let them know they’re there for them and appreciate their hard work.
“We’re going to need the human dynamic,” says Greg Armstrong, vice president of sales at Evans Manufacturing in Garden Grove, CA. “Gifts need to be impactful, thoughtful and utilitarian, with high perceived value. Don’t give out something like clocks that will just sit on a mantle, and recognize that companies might not be able to afford name-brand wireless speakers for everyone.”
Marketing budgets may be slashed significantly, but it’s up to distributors to make sure clients know how important it is to reach out to their employees and customers with gifts that can serve them at this difficult time. “We’re not going to have parties, but it’s still very important that companies send out something to their people,” says Abergel. “Promo connects people.”
No Place Like Home
As reopening plans were made, implemented and then rolled back in some states this summer, people slowly realized that a return to normalcy was going to take a long time. For many, homes were their safe havens in the midst of the storm.
While $100 trophies and name-brand wireless speakers may be off the table this year, companies can still show appreciation with gifts for home use, usually at affordable price points. “We’re now working, playing and overall living at home more,” says a distributor in Maple, ON. “It’s up to distributors to present unique ideas that might not have been typical options in the past but are totally relevant now.”
Despite fears of slashed marketing budgets, food gift supplier Maple Ridge Farms in Mosinee, WI, is up 50% year-over-year, because of remote work, a lack of dining out and a few smaller reopening celebrations. President Tom Riordan says they’re fulfilling more orders for cheese and sausage packages than he can ever remember. He expects dining in and family sharing of food gifts to remain popular through the fourth quarter, and smaller items will be used as teasers for virtual parties and year-end meetings.
“Almost all of our customers think their Q4 business from 2019 will repeat,” says Riordan, anticipating repeat business this holiday season but with smaller orders. “Over the past 10 years, there’s been a shift from sending items to residences to sending them to offices for workers to share. That will flip big time this year.”
Now, people want a change of scenery after months of stay-at-home orders, but aren’t yet ready to board flights. That means more road trip and camping items will soon be in demand. “People want to be safe, but they want to get out of the house,” says Abergel. “Items won’t be at the same price points as previous years, but we’ll take the same care with it.”
Another option: “Experience” gift bundles that give recipients a taste of a destination without having to leave the couch. Was a client’s incentive trip to Puerto Rico canceled this year? Put together a kitted box with personal care items, fun sunglasses, barware, towel and tote. It’s not the same as actually going, but it’ll get attendees pumped for the 2021 event.
Think home exercise apparel and equipment and cooking accessories, for starters. Starline in Grand Island, NY has a wide array of kitchen tools, such as bowls, tongs, spatulas, serving spoons and bamboo cutting boards. “This is the year of cooking and dining in,” says Brian Porter, Starline’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. “We’ve seen steady order increases week-over-week.” He says other “universal use” items, like tech accessories, are great for sharing with significant others and kids.
Workers Near & Far
When employees were first told to go home and set up shop in their dining rooms, no one knew exactly how long it would be before seeing their co-workers in person again. Now, it seems it might not be before the end of the year, and maybe not until Q1 2021. That means employees will continue to need work-from-home items, even if they’re on newly implemented flexible home/office schedules.
Sheng Kuo, principal at KLM Promo Products in West Covina, CA, says good quality branded headsets would be appreciated for virtual meetings, especially if the ones recipients have been using look worse for wear after more than six months of near-daily use. He says companies are also looking for desk items like wireless device chargers with UV sterilizing cases.
For those venturing out of the house more often as restrictions lift, consider stylus pens for transaction screens and ATMs, no-touch tools and bag holders to avoid contact with floors.
Ahead of virtual year-end events, companies can distribute gifts to employees in the office and drop-ship them to those still working remotely. “It adds a personal touch and promotes team spirit,” says Kuo.
For companies with a little more to spend, custom sales specialist Eleanor Turner of Cufflinks Inc. (asi/47838) says cufflinks, ties and scarves are ideal for virtual holiday parties and then as permanent wardrobe pieces for virtual sales calls. “All of our items are used from the waist up,” she says. “There’s a novelty to them and they’re personal items the team can use. They bring comfort and remind everyone that we’re all in this together.”
Meanwhile, welcoming back employees to shared workspaces is slowly starting and is expected to continue ramping up for the rest of 2020 and into 2021. Q4 gifts can help prepare everyone for the transition.
Webb Company has been doing more kitting than ever before. “Kitting is our go-to moving forward,” says Ashfeld. “It’s interactive and tangible.” The supplier is putting together bundles of PPE and promo customized to each client’s needs. “We’re including no-touch keys and drinkware,” she says. “We’re also combining tech accessories with personal care products like lip balm and sanitizer. We’ve made things easier by offering a black gift box with an in-house printed label. It’s got a subscription box feel and it makes people happy. And then we can drop-ship to homes.”
Clients can also help returning employees maintain a healthy distance by giving them personalized items, which not only adds an appreciated touch to the piece, but also mitigates accidental sharing.
Personalization is normally used with about 10% of orders at Starline, says Porter. It’s now about 50%. “They’re looking for personalized coolers in particular,” says Porter. “Employees won’t be able to commune in breakrooms, so this helps avoid gathering and use of the fridge. Then they can still bring their lunch and eat healthy because they’re not going to the fast food place down the street. Plus, with temperature checks at the door, leaving for lunch and coming back will be a pain.”
An appreciation gift will have even more impact this year if there’s a built-in health and safety aspect. “We can help people feel safe coming back to work,” says Silseth. “Whether it’s PPE or showing them how valuable their role is, there are opportunities we can propose to clients to help them with comforting their people.”
Q4 Challenges Compounded
With a flurry of orders and clients coming to distributors late in the game, the fourth quarter is traditionally a trying one, particularly when it comes to inventory levels. This year, the quarter will have its own unique challenges.
To start, many end-buyers will have a hybrid of in-office and remote gift recipients. To meet demand, promo companies will have to be nimble to offer clients the smoothest gift experience possible. Drop-shipping, for example, is a must-have this year. “Say a company has 600 remote workers,” says Armstrong. “How do you get gifts to them? They can’t all stop by on December 23 to pick them up. That would be chaotic, so you deliver them to people’s doorsteps.”
Many factories are now offering extended services in drop-shipping, kitting, warehousing and curbside pick-up. “We’ve always offered these things, but it was mostly for our larger national clients,” says President & CEO Sam Singh. “Now, everyone needs them. In Q4, we’ll be ramping them up to offer a frictionless experience.”
Keep lead-times in mind as well. This year, the persistent problem of COVID-related supply chain disruption complicates an already busy gift season known for fluctuating inventory levels. Riordan at Maple Ridge Farms said they had to expedite a few meat orders because of facility closing concerns, and lead-times on gift towers lengthened considerably recently after the cardboard supplier was shut down for several weeks. “Disruption could also spike prices, sometimes between 25% and 30%,” he says. “Clients should be ordering twice as early.”
But arguably, the most daunting challenge will be reduction in client budgets. End-buyers say they just don’t have the money to give out gifts this year. Distributors should be sensitive to financial challenges while also offering to help clients get creative with fewer dollars at their disposal.
Singh says two kinds of spend will dominate Q4 sales: Higher-end products for a smaller group of recipients (what he calls a “narrow and deep strategy”), and higher volumes of lower-priced items to get them into more people’s hands and keep their brands top-of-mind. Think pens, ceramic mugs and water bottles, he says. Clients might still be thinking in terms of $100 gifts. Tell them $10 to $15 will still get them something worth giving, says Abergel, even if it’s just drinkware, a blanket or comfy socks with a card or note.
Don’t forget to use available budget from canceled end-of-year parties. “Our national sales meeting isn’t happening,” Porter adds. “The $50-$60 in overhead for each attendee is going to Q4 promo for our people.”
Ashfeld says she’s quoted a variety of gift bundles from $15 net (a vacuum tumbler with candy inside) to $50 net. “I’d say the sweet spot for gifts this year is in the $10 to $30 range, including the products, imprint and packaging,” says Armstrong. “Companies aren’t going to do $50 to $100 a person.”
It’s been an unforgettable year, but for all the wrong reasons. Now, it’s up to distributors and their supplier partners to help clients end the year on a positive note with an affordable token of gratitude. “Showing appreciation is at an all-time premium right now,” says Armstrong. “Companies need to say to their employees and clients: ‘Thank you for enduring and sticking by us.’”
The right gift at the right price not only recognizes employees and clients after a long, difficult year, but also boosts morale for the next. “Gifts will keep everyone connected and ready for 2021,” says Abergel. “We’re all going to have to start building business up again and getting back on track.”