Holiday Gift-Giving Etiquette for Small Businesses

You may genuinely love your suppliers or customers… but what do give them for the holidays?

Exchanging gifts is an etiquette minefield studded with unspoken rules, academician Theodore Caplow argues in a Christmas-themed paper for the University of Virginia. For small businesses, this suggests that how well you handle purchasing gifts for partners and clients — or other office gift-giving festivities — may determine, at least in part, how happy your New Year is.

The most cherished gifts are those that make recipients feel as if you thought specifically about them, notes Barbara Pachter, president of Pachter & Associates in Cherry Hill, N.J., and author of nine etiquette books, including her latest, Greet! Eat! Tweet! 52 Business Etiquette Postings to Avoid Pitfalls and Boost Your Career. “It can really embarrass people if you don’t handle gift-giving appropriately,” she says.

Jill Bremer, owner of Jill Bremer Executive Coaching in Oak Park, Ill., says it’s hard to go wrong with gift certificates that can be redeemed at any one of the stores within a particular, nearby shopping mall. She also suggests museum memberships, coffee-table books, and tickets to the theater or a sporting event.

“Little food things can be fun, too, like a little teapot with teabags, if you know someone is a tea drinker,” Bremer says, adding that people should take care not to give “one-size-fits-all” food baskets. “The last thing somebody on Jenny Craig wants is a 10-pound box of chocolates. You also have to be careful about giving alcohol… they could be in rehab for all you know.”

Bremer says her golden rule is to avoid giving business gifts that touch the skin: lingerie, soaps, oils, perfume, and the like. These types of products connote intimacy — something that a client may not appreciate. Instead of earrings, for example, a co-worker could “give a winter scarf that would be worn outside the coat.”

Pachter also warns against re-gifting (e.g., “I got this fruitcake and I don’t want it, so I’m going to give it to you”), which ranks high on the tacky scale. She remembers receiving a castoff potted plant from a decorator, which unbeknown to the given had the original recipients’ gift card still tucked inside the foliage.

About Jan Fletcher

Jan Fletcher, President of Dreamcatch Creative, reports on restaurant operations, the signage industry, and composite manufacturing. She also writes about technology in business and education, and is passionate about microenterprise.
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