Christmas is the time for giving and, in the corporate sector, the personal touch has never been more important. Millions of pounds are spent every year on business gifts, and it is estimated that about 80% of hamper transactions are made in the run-up to Christmas.
In recent years, company buyers have sought to enhance value by creating bespoke gift or hamper collections, rather than choosing catalogue-listed options. Such packages enable companies to have their branding printed on products, and there is less of a chance of making a faux pas if gifts have been selected with the recipient in mind.
The hampers market has moved beyond the simple food-in-a-basket concept and into personalised incentives, driven by factors including logistics and finance - suppliers can now react quickly to product requests, and are keen to boost sales of bespoke products which are more lucrative than items from their catalogue ranges.
John Lewis corporate account manager Manoj Jadeja says personalisation has rocketed since the retailer introduced it three years ago. He points to other reasons for the sector's appeal. 'The rise of bespoke gifting has largely come about on the back of increased alcohol awareness and responsible drinking,' he says. 'That forces companies to hold off sending alcohol. Also, some want to avoid adding meat to a hamper as they don't want to offend anyone's beliefs.'
Jadeja adds that personalisation shows a company has had a hand in selecting and creating the contents of the hamper, and allows it to add other elements into the mix, such as specially imported products.
Getting the brief right is essential, and the amount of detail tends to change with the job. Companies handing out hampers to a select group of people with similar preferences tend to be specific about what contents they require, while others will approach suppliers with a basic brief detailing the budget and items they want to avoid, such as alcohol and meat. The latter tend to seek suggestions from the supplier for the final contents of the hamper.
Peter Loverdos, head of marketing at hamper provider Clearwater, says there is less chance of getting something wrong or causing offence if the original brief is detailed. 'Some customers have done a lot of research into who they're sending the product to, while others are a bit looser,' he explains. 'The more detailed the brief, the better, but if it's a bit sketchy, we'll talk them around.'
Loverdos says alcohol has become a contentious issue when it comes to hampers, with some companies shirking it altogether to avoid conundrums such as the appropriateness of including a Christmas pudding made with brandy in an otherwise alcohol-free selection. He adds that perishables are another concern - Clearwater asks its clients to ensure they keep hampers in a refrigerated area until they are sent to the eventual recipient.
Even in cases where the buyer has only limited information about their client's preferences, the hamper can be filled with items chosen in relation to the recipient's gender, age and job. However, the less information, the greater the pitfalls. Paul Brown, incentives specialist at consultancy Maritz, says it is important to be aware, for example, that people in certain industries are unable to accept gifts above a certain value. 'We work with several clients in the pharmaceutical industry and have to be careful to ensure we are abreast of the latest regulations for each company,' he explains.
More than food
Food is only part of the mix for bespoke Christmas hampers. 'It's a matter of giving added value and leaving the customer with something once the food has been consumed,' says Jadeja. 'Over the past two years, we've started adding durable items such as nibble plates and candles.'
Some products are hard to supply, however, with bulk orders of iPods, for instance, not simple to arrange in the run-up to Christmas. It should also be noted that, while discounts are often offered for big orders of food and homewares, the high demand for electronic goods means suppliers of these are less willing to cut their prices.
In terms of the hamper packaging itself, some suppliers offer creative branding options. Clearwater, for example, provides hampers that speak a message when they are opened.
Personalisation is not only taking place at the top end of the Christmas incentives market. Brown says Maritz is encouraging clients to use experiential vouchers, rather than hampers, especially when it comes to lower-value gifts. He points out that vouchers are cheaper to fulfil than bigger and heavier gifts and, like hampers, can be chosen with the recipient in mind and feature the sender's branding.
Katy Barton, corporate sales manager at HMV and Waterstone's, says many of her clients are demanding bespoke vouchers. Because the size of the print runs of HMV's paper vouchers make personalisation, such as the inclusion of a third-party logo, difficult logistically, the retailer has introduced a range of options for its electronic and card-based vouchers. 'As long as we give out a code and redemption instructions, we can deliver the e-voucher any way,' says Barton. 'With a recent Motorola incentive for a new phone, the company put a code for one of our vouchers into the box - all the customer had to do was validate it by text.'
She adds that such vouchers can be delivered via personalised wristbands or SMS messages. However, many clients still prefer traditional gift cards that include their own branding in some way. David Fleming, corporate account manager at Kingfisher Gift Vouchers, which supplies Woolworths, Comet and B&Q, says clients have many opportunities to add products such as their own calendars to a voucher mailing.
Buyers want to show they have taken the trouble over a gift, even when it is of low value, because these personal touches can get a brand noticed in the busy Christmas incentives market. More than ever, it is the thought that counts.
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If a company wants to impress a client, it can really push the boat out, with the average budget for a bespoke Harrods hamper being £2500. The retailer's top-end £5000 Chairman's Choice hamper includes crystal glasses, cutlery, luxury food such as caviar and foie gras, and fine wines.
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The bigger the budget, the more options there are to personalise a hamper. One targeting women might include truffles, shortbread, butterscotch, Turkish delight, handmade chocolates, spiced olives and organic biscuits. To this could be added a selection of premium pampering treats, such as an upmarket toiletries gift set. At John Lewis, extra options include a voucher for a gift experience, such as a luxury Zen Spa break or a trip to a gourmet retreat in France.
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Harrods says hampers should include something the recipient can keep after the food has been eaten. At this budget level, one can include items such as whisky tumblers, nibble dishes and candles. Many suppliers also place experiential vouchers in the hamper - Harrods offers tickets to the store's 'Tutored wine dinner', which includes a five-course meal with a selection of wine.
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Peter Lover-dos, head of marketing at hamper specialist Clearwater, says clients with a low budget need to decide whether to spread it over a number of smaller value items, or blow it all on a one-off gift. With Clearwater, a wicker basket costs up to £35, while a cardboard gift box retails at just under £3. In this price range, the hamper generally contains food, although it is possible to add low-cost items such as cosmetics.