There’s a school of thought that says you can tell how a business feels about its prospects by how it treats staff and clients during the holidays. If that’s true, then companies are feeling a little more hopeful these days, according to business publisher the Bureau of National Affairs.
Canvassing employers, BNA found 46 percent planned to hand out gifts or bonuses this year, up from 41 percent in 2010 and 33 percent in 2009. Intentions to give are at a five-year high, but the incremental growth is far from a ringing endorsement of the economy.
“These little acts of kindness are in some ways an indicator of the way employers feel the economy is going,” said Matt Sottong, director of surveys and research for BNA. “Employers think there may be some hope on the horizon. They’ll tell you candidly, ‘If we don’t have the money, we can’t spend it.’”
Government and private-sector ethics rules around gift giving have become stricter, but tokens of appreciation remain common during the holidays. Spending on corporate gifts fizzled at the height of the downturn as companies sought to contain costs. Sottong said businesses may now feel compelled to thank employees for “sticking with them in tough times.”
Still, if the recent lull in consumer spending indicates what is to come, then holiday sales may prove sluggish. Spending was up earlier in the year but ebbed following the U.S. default threat and subsequent volatility in the markets.
Sales tax revenues in the Washington metropolitan area were trending 3.4 percent higher than the prior year through August, but trailed off in the past three months, according to estimates from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, which oversee the Washington area.
As we head into the holiday season, retailers are hoping to see a return to optimism. Companies, despite a possible deficit reduction “supercommittee” impasse and ongoing economic malaise, may feel a need to show gratitude. We sampled some area merchants to see what they are offering to bring a little cheer to employees or clients.
While this art gallery-chocolate shop hybrid is a staple in Del Ray, its sister cafe, ACKC Cocoa Gallery in the District, is famous for its quirky hot chocolates inspired by divas from the 1940s and 1950s. The Lucille Ball, for instance, has a hint of chipotle peppers in homage to the comedian’s fiesty personality and cinnamon for her red hair.
You’d have to head into the caféto try one of the 17 combinations, but the company does sell several hot cocoa mixes online starting at $10. Artfully Chocolate arranges hundreds of gift baskets during the holidays, according to owner Eric Nelson. Boxes of chocolates are a fan favorite, as are molded chocolate gifts, such the $3.75 U.S. Capitol mold and the $6.50 ChocObama.
Once called a “chocoholic’s shrine” by a Washington Post reviewer, this confectionery is a favorite for filled chocolates, truffles and a variety of bars. There is something to satisfy just about every sweet tooth, from chipotle chili truffles to blood orange caramel.
Nine- and 15-piece boxes of filled chocolate truffles, ranging from $24.50 to $37.50, are hot ticket items for corporate clients, according to owner Robert Cabeca. They “make a beautiful arrangement for those who are just not sure what the receiver is going to like,” he said. Cabeca also recommends a $125 assortment of speciality chocolate bars and custom gift baskets with truffles or hot cocoa, priced at $55.
Starbucks and Caribou Coffee may serve up a fine cup of joe, but this local operation roasts, packages and sells its brew wholesale and in several stores and airport and hospital kiosks right here at home. Nearly 100 percent of the coffee beans Mayorga imports comes from small, family-owned coffee estates in Africa and Central and South America.
This time of year Mayorga offers a selection of gift baskets. One of the four arrangements being offered is the $33.95 Holiday Flavors Basket, comprised of a Hawaiian Hazelnut light roast, a winter blend dark roast and, for good measure, a pecan sticky bun. Another offers a collection of six boxes of organic teas for $24.95.
Sisters Barbara and Marcia Levi have spent the past 34 years perfecting the art of kitsch. From the Dress Me Up Political Magnet Set to the Do-It-Yourself Therapy Book, you’d be hard pressed to find the same merchandise mix anywhere else in the area.
Being smack dab in the middle of one of the region’s densest business districts has kept the store in tune with, and ready to make fun of, corporate culture. Among the sisters’ top choices for the holidays are $10 Corporate Flashcards to teach you to talk business and $10 Wall Street Guru ball to help with stock picks.
And the pièce de résistance: Wamazo, a $30 boxing game that allows you to duke it out with three other co-workers. “It’s like therapy,” Barbara Levi said. “You can get out all of your aggression from the stress of corporate life.”
There are not too many places where you’ll find a Star Wars Lightsaber Laser Pointer or a Doctor Who Dalek Projection Clock. Which is why ThinkGeek has built a national following in the 12 years since opening. Customers are known to send in pictures of their favorite nerdy items in use, like the Stickman Action Figure posed as Captain Morgan.
To encourage creativity, the online-only retailer recommends $24.99 BuckyBalls Magnetic Building Spheres, which allows users to sculpt, build and create with magnets, while dawdling at their desks. For the iPad and iPhone lovers, who find touch-screen technology frustrating, the folks at ThinkGeek suggest a $169.99 Cube Laser Virtual Keyboard that projects a full-sized keyboard onto any flat surface.
McLean Cigars PG Boutique
Cigarmaker Paul Garmirian’s only retail location naturally has an extensive collection of his brand of stogies, PG Cigars. Hand-rolled at the famous Davidoff factory in the Dominican Republic, the cigars are sold in some 200 stores across the country and have amassed a loyal following.
Garmirian said humidors have been one of the most popular corporate gifts over years, but he also recommends lighters and leather cigar cases.
W. Curtis Draper Tobacconist
Having supplied stogies to presidents, dignitaries and a host of celebrities over the past 123 years, this smoke shop knows a thing or two about tobacco. Owner Matt Krimm said cigars are a go-to corporate gift because “many people still associate smoking a premium hand rolled cigar with celebrations and relaxations.”
He can rattle off a list of items he believes are sure to strike a cord with cigar aficionados. The $100 Black Label El Presidente lighter, for instance, creates a broad, flat flame that “facilitates a perfect burn for a premium cigar.” Krimm also recommends a $960 ST Dupont accessories set, complete with leather case as well as chrome keychain punch cutter and double-blade cutter. Each item, ranging from $150 to $250, are also great gifts on their own, he said.
Owner Doug Rosen estimates he and his staff taste between 400 and 600 wines a month in search of the best bottles. And while his store boasts an impressive selection of Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs, the wide array of cheeses, chocolates and charcuterie has made it a popular stop for basket-fillers.
Just about any wine pairing can be turned into a gift basket, but Rosen suggests one of the best corporate gifts stands on its own: champagne.
“The celebratory nature of champagne says you’re positive and optimistic about your business and your client, even when times are tough,” he said. “And a good estate-bottled selection says your attentive and in vogue since some of the greatest changes, hottest wines and best new producers in the wine world are in champagne.”
For its flavorful pinot meunier grapes, Rosen recommends Jerome Prevost La Closerie Les Beguines Extra Brut champagne at $89.99 a bottle. On the lower end of the price scale, but equally tasty, Bereche et Fils champagne Les Breaux Regards Chardonnay at $59.99 is also an excellent pick, he says.
Cork & Fork
Former winemaker Dominque Landragin, his wife Anne and daughter Antoinette each run a location of this popular local chain, known for its regular wine tastings. Cork & Fork carries bottles from 30 Virginia wineries.
Antoinette Landragin said the company offers made to order gift baskets that can include glassware, cheeses, cured meats or cork screws. She recommends simple pairings of red or white wines with chocolates. One of the top selling corporate gifts, she added, has been El Barcino teamed with fig jam.
You can tap, text or type just about anything these days, but “everyone needs a pen now and then,” said Bert Oser, owner of this high-end boutique. Known for its well-crafted fountain, rollerball and ballpoint pens — all classic corporate gifts — Bertram’s stays busy during the holidays.
Oser said Cross brand pens, which range from $35 to $250, tend to fly off the shelves because of the quality and value. If price is not an issue, MontBlanc pens, starting at $400, are a favorite among collectors and “a gift that no one ever forgets where it came from.” Oser anticipates Parker’s new Ingenuity collection, with its assortment of finishes and colors, will be a top seller this year. Prices range from $160 to $190.
Sterling & Burke
Few stores in the area carry as wide a selection of swanky items from Swaine Adeney Brigg, a British retailer known for its timeless leather goods. One of the most popular corporate gifts within the collection is the hand-stitched attache case, priced from $1,000 to $3,500, said principal Susan Jeffries. “If someone needs to offer a special thank you, this would do it,” she said.
For a less expensive way to say thanks, Jeffries suggests a handmade Brigg umbrella with a crook chestnut handle, starting at $150. There are also $32 leather-bound pocket calendars that can be engraved with the company or recipient's name for a few dollars more or $8 handmade leather bookmarks.
Red Barn Mercantile
Shoppers with a penchant for vintage home furnishings and antique collectibles likely have stopped in at this popular boutique. But owner Amy Rutherford also offers a number of speciality gifts that have found favor with corporate clients.
“We have a customer who is giving [a whale-shaped] bottle opener along with a six-pack of vintage-esque sodas or imported beer to her law partners,” she said.
Another customer requested 30 hand-crafted ornaments to give to her staff. One of the most popular items this holiday season has been the $32 Three Sheets to the Wind flask by Izola. “They’re just flying out the door,” Rutherford said.
Tiny Jewel Box
Don’t let the name fool you, this 81-year-old District store sells a lot more than shiny baubles. Vice President of Corporate Sales Gina Sherman says the store also is known for its collection of decoupage desk boxes featuring iconic Washington images, like the Capitol or White House. Those pieces, starting at $65, are big sellers during the holidays.
Another item that tends to clear off the shelves is the sterling silver enamel cufflinks, ranging in price from $100 to $175. Want more? Sherman recommends corporate clients check out the store’s selection of watches and other jewelry.
This homegrown national chain, with four locations in the Washington area, carries a line of luxury skin care, makeup, perfume, hair, bath and body products. Seem a bit too presumptuous for a client or employee gift? Not at all, said marketing manager Alicia Lane. Company chief executive Marla Beck, she noted, has personally assembled her fair share of corporate gifts.
On Beck’s list of favorites: Acqua di Parma’s Collezione Barbiere $43 shaving gel and $75 after shave lotion. Molton Brown’s $75 Fractal Hand Wash & Lotion gift set is another favorite that is exclusively made for the store.
A newfangled take on the old-fashioned barbershop, the Grooming Lounge, with its hot-lather shaves and waxing, is a popular haunt for executive types. In addition to its two stores in the District and Tysons Corner, the company has a thriving online business selling an array of products for dapper dudes.
Director of Stores Brittni Paul said the company logs a lot of corporate sales during the holidays and has something to fit every price point. She recommends the $25 Greatest Shave Ever Try Me Kit— a TSA-friendly assortment that’s “ideal for any corporate titan or road warrior.” She said the $110 Dovo 5-piece nail set is another great option, as “a solid pair of hands is essential for every businessman, nothing worse than a nasty handshake.”