It may be 90 degrees outside, but small-business owners should start choosing and ordering Christmas and holiday gifts for their customers and employees. Ordering now allows you to take advantage of sizable discounts on giveaways, officially known as "advertising specialties."

Small-business owners contributed mightily to the $4.5 billion spent last year on a spectacular range of business giveaways, according to Marvin Spike, president of the Advertising Specialty Institute in Langhorne, Pa.

"Even the smallest business with a marketing plan can be competitive in its area with the right kind of specialty advertising," said Spike. "And we find specialty advertising particularly effective in soft markets when something for nothing becomes more appreciated and respected."

But giving the cheapest key chains or magnets may not be the best strategy, said Jay Conrad Levinson, author of a series of books about "guerrilla marketing."

"You will make as many enemies as friends if you give them junk," Levinson said. "People like free things, but it is important to match the giveaway to the people you are marketing to."

Small-business owners have traditionally given customers pencils, pens, calendars and key chains. But today, the selection of affordable business gifts is staggering. Items range from personalized packages of chewing gum to crystal clocks and neon-hued sunglasses. You can emblazon your company's name on playing cards, digital watches, plastic Frisbees, "sipper" cups popular with athletes and nylon "fanny packs."

If there is a "hot" item this year, it is the zippered nylon fanny pack worn around the waist or hips, according to Suzanne Gombos of Nu Century Enterprises in Northridge, Calif.

"Companies don't realize how important advertising specialties can be as a marketing tool," said Gombos, a partner in the company she formed less than a year ago with Darrin Block. She and Block suggest that companies give small gifts to employees, suppliers, vendors and potential customers they meet at trade shows.

Even the tiniest business can afford some type of specialty advertising. By taking advantage of preseason discounts, for example, you can buy 144 ceramic mugs with your company's name on it for about $300.

"Even with only $100, we can provide bumper stickers, decals, buttons, plastic license plate frames or baseball caps," Gombos said. The main problem in her business, she said, is educating the public about where to buy specialty advertising products."People know what they are looking for, but they don't know where to find the items."

Checking a business-to-business telephone directory under "advertising specialties" or asking other business owners where they buy products are usually the best ways to find distributors who represent thousands of products.

Clair Schutte, owner of Schutte's Pool & Spa service company in Sepulveda, Calif., received a flyer from Nu Century and called Gombos six months later. Gombos helped him find a graphic artist to design a logo featuring a pool and palm trees.

So far, Schutte has spent about $1,200 on ceramic coffee mugs and T-shirts. "It's worth every cent," said Schutte, who spends about $1,000 a month to advertise in the Yellow Pages and the Pennysaver. "I think it's a very wise investment."

He gave his helpers company shirts to wear to assure neighbors that they are going into people's back yards for a legitimate purpose. He also ordered blue and gray mugs for his best customers so they will keep his name and phone number handy.

Businesses serving big corporations or executives may want to buy leather business card holders, marble paperweights or sophisticated, personalized calculators.

Susan Margol, founder of Smith & Margol in Los Angeles, recently returned from a trip to Asia where she visited factories in Beijing and Hong Kong. Many of the specialty items she develops for her clients are manufactured abroad.

In recent years, Margol has developed a colorful ceramic "Charlie the Tuna" coin bank, bendable basketball player dolls and elegant "gift with purchase" products for Neutrogena, a soap and shampoo marker.

"Specialty advertising is attractive because the cost of other forms of advertising is prohibitive for most business owners in a big city," said Margol.

Instead of spending dollars on ephemeral ads, she and other specialty marketing consultants recommend investing in useful merchandise with your logo. The merchandise doesn't perish and can be kept on hand to be given away at a moment's notice.

Because you want customers or potential customers to think of your business first, the key is to give away something that is useful and visible. Magnets, paper clip holders, paperweights and letter openers are likely to sit on someone's desk as constant reminders of your firm.

If giving small gifts doesn't appeal to you, try sending Thanksgiving cards to beat the Christmas crush. The Leanin' Tree in Boulder, Colo., has a special line of business-to-business greeting cards featuring original paintings by mostly Western artists.

"We think business card usage is increasing because businesses are recognizing the importance of personal contact in this day and age of computerization and impersonalization," said Ed Trumble, who founded the company about 40 years ago.

Twenty years ago, Trumble said, it was not uncommon for the typical American family to send 200 Christmas cards a season. Now, because of 25-cent stamps, changing social habits and just plain laziness, fewer cards are being sent.

But, with fewer holiday cards in the mail, the card you and your business send will really stand out and be appreciated.

Jane Applegate welcomes letters and story suggestions from readers. Please write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.