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Summer 2004 It’s A Wrap!

Good things come in small packages. Big ones, too. And they’re especially good when you wrap your customers’ purchases with all the trimmings. Gift-wrapping is the touch that sets the tone, creates an image, and sets your retail business a notch above. Customers love it. All in all, a little gift-wrapping can help your retail business thrive in a competitive market during holiday time and anytime.

Gift-wrapping, no matter how simple or elaborate, is customer service—tangible, decorative customer service. “Service is vital to a smaller store,” says Fred Busch, marketing coordinator for the Gift Box Corporation of America (Carlstadt, NJ), “and packaging is a big part of service.”

In addition to service, there’s your image to think about. “A retailer who offers gift-packaging as a service creates a quality image for the business itself,” says Celia Thomas, co-owner of MAC Paper Supply, Inc. (Sedgwick, KS), a distributor of gift-packaging supplies. “It’s a subtle statement that the business cares about helping its customers deliver a quality gift to the recipient,” she says. “People don’t normally wrap junk, so the gift-wrapping also makes a statement about the quality of the product inside.”

Elly Masella, an owner of Originals (Carle Place, NY), says her gift shop never considered not offering gift bags and boxes —green and custom-printed with gold lettering. “We wanted a classy store that sold beautiful items and met customers’ needs,” she says. “Our packaging has to reflect the quality of the pieces we sell. Among people who know us, the green package is a reminder of who we are, and I think it represents us well.”

“Great packaging creates excitement for the buyer and gift recipient,” says Joni Compton, advertising coordinator for Nashville Wraps (Hendersonville, TN), a wholesale distributor of packaging products. “Chocolates in a plain brown bag don’t taste as exotic as chocolates in a flowered tote bag with curling ribbon dangling from the handles.” Online retailer Sunsational Kids (Jacksonville, NC) also does gift-wrap. “We offer bright, colorful wrap appropriate for kids, free of charge,” says owner Carol Daly. “People say it looks like someone actually took time with their gift rather than just putting it in a box. There’s something to be said for volume profit over individual-item profit.”

During the holidays, stores that gift-wrap are seen as a one-stop gift service. “That’s very important to time-stressed customers who will remember this service for occasions such as Valentine’s Day and Father’s Day,” says Compton. “We have people who shop here just because we provide gift-wrapping as a free service, especially at Christmas,” says Janice Hubers, co-owner of Scentsational (Huntington, NY), who uses cellophane, tissue paper and ribbon to gather-wrap many of its fragrances and other gift items. “[Customers] like that they can have their gifts wrapped and ready to go, and they don’t have to think about them anymore.” The benefits of gift-wrapping work the other way, too: “The holiday season is when shoppers are the most rushed, and [they’ll] return to retailers they found earlier in the year that offered gift-wrapping as a service,” says Thomas. Additional benefits come if you make productive use of the time needed to wrap the gift, says Compton. “You can speak with customers during the packaging process to learn what other products and services they would like added to the store,” she says. (And you might even sell them something to complement the purchase they just made.)

And all of these benefits add up to one more: a competitive edge. “The average retailer is competing against big department stores,” says Busch. When someone walks out of your store with a beautifully wrapped $10 item, it looks like a $50 item, and it proves that your customer service can outshine the big store—and it will make the customer want to come back.”

Supply side

imageReady to trade in your plain brown bags and white boxes? Where do you start? Wading through the sea of specialty papers, metallic ribbons, fabric bags, colorful boxes, custom labels and more can be overwhelming and confusing. They might give you ideas of what’s out there, but they won’t help you make good decisions. And to make good decisions, you need to ask the right questions—not just what looks good to you, but what you want your packaging to “say.” That’s where a great supplier can be invaluable. It’s like having a fluent tour guide in a foreign land.

OK, how do you find a great supplier? Check out packaging products at gift shows… search online (Google “gift wrap supplier,” for example)… look through trade magazines… and talk to other retailers: word of mouth is a popular and useful way to find a good supplier.

Once you find some likely prospects, Busch suggests calling and simply saying, “I need your help—I don’t know what to do,” and see what response you get. A good company will help you choose great packaging, he says. “We might recommend a [certain] bag, and if the customer chooses it, we’ll suggest ribbon and tissue that go with it, to create a coordinated look for the store.” New businesses “often don’t know much about packaging,” he says, so they need guidance even more. But whether for new or seasoned retailers, Compton says “suppliers must provide retailers with ideas on merchandising, and how other retailers increase their sales” through display and packaging.

In addition to good service, selection and prices, look for a supplier’s reliability. “The lowest price means nothing if you can’t get the product when you need it,” says Thomas. Order packaging materials as far in advance as possible to assure they’re available and will arrive when you need them, without having to pay express shipping costs.

A supplier’s role doesn’t end when you sign for delivery, though. Think of your supplier as an “ancillary business partner,” says Compton—one who knows and understands current and future trends and passes that information on to you.

The right look

Before you choose any packaging supplies for your store or cart, think about your overall image. “If your products and image lean toward glamour and glitz, consider foil or high-gloss packaging,” says Thomas. But “if your products and image are more of a natural look, consider natural kraft [paper], tan or earthy colors.” Compton says retailers must also understand their customers in relation to demographics and especially region: what sells on Madison Avenue may not appeal to customers in rural areas, she says.

You have other, more practical matters to consider, of course. “The right packaging is first and foremost a cost issue,” says Lisa Plener, general manager for Creative Bag Co. Ltd. (Downsview, ON), a packaging distributor, wholesaler and manufacturer. “A dollar store would use a low-end ‘T-shirt’ poly bag,” she says, “whereas a higher-end gift shop that’s making 100 points on cost can build in margin for unique packaging.” A laminated Euro tote or other high-end, distinctive packaging “will get repeat usage and repeat the brand name through its life span,” she says.

Retailers often incorporate the palette of their cart or store into the packaging. “This is a great idea, but it’s not always an economical choice” if you want to match things exactly, says Thomas. Exact color matches are difficult to achieve because colors will vary somewhat between lots. “A more neutral contrast color usually works best.”

For smaller retailers who don’t order a huge volume of packaging materials, Thomas suggests appealing colors that are appropriate for all ages, both genders, and several holidays. “Red, silver or gold usually work well,” she says. “They’re festive for Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and can be further customized with ribbons or tissue that are more specific to gender or special seasons.”

Following fashion

imageTrends in gift-wrap are affected by what happens in the market. For instance, “the mod-retro style of the ’50s and ’60s continues to influence packaging design in both color and shape,” says Margo Ruggiero, showroom manager for Bags & Bows (Atlanta), a supplier of retail packaging products. Other top picks are styles and colors that evoke a spa feel (lots of white with neutrals, silver or pastel accents, for example), as well as Asian accents featuring rich mandarin reds and Bali browns, she says.

Sheer-fabric frosted bags are in vogue now, as are translucent bags in vibrant colors. While kraft-paper products in natural brown and other colors continue to be popular, paper bags made of unique fibers are gaining ground, as are re-usable bags. “New trends in Europe eventually trickle down to our market,” says Plener, “and there’s a move there toward unique, lasting packaging that can be used again.”

There’s also increased demand for matching bags, gift-wrap and ribbons. Customers love packaging that coordinate: they see it as increasing the gift’s value, says Compton. Popular combinations come in soft pastels, masculine prints, and animal prints, which continue to be popular and show up on just about everything—decorative boxes, ribbon, and tissue paper. “It looks stunning when viewed through translucent bags,” she says.

Finally, gift bags and other containers like tin boxes—all of which simplify the gift-wrapping process—are hot. But wrapping paper, as you might expect, is less popular than it was.

Free or not?

Many retailers wrestle with whether they should charge for gift-wrapping, and if so, how much. “‘Free gift-wrapping’ is, of course, the attention-grabber,” says Thomas. “If the retailer’s profit margin allows it, that would be preferable.” Busch agrees: “In the long run, [free wrapping] will give small retailers an advantage, since they’re fighting big retailers, which normally charge for gift-wrap.”

The decision isn’t always easy, which is why “some retailers offer free gift-wrapping on a trial basis to see if it helps to boost traffic,” says Compton. “You might charge a small fee for all gift-wrapping—that would still be more cost-efficient than shoppers wrapping it themselves,” says Thomas. One option, she says, is to set a minimum-sale amount for free gift-wrapping—”Spend $50 and gift-wrap is free!”—and charge for gift-wrapping smaller purchases. Other options: Single out specific items that qualify for free wrapping. Or use inexpensive paper for free gift-wrap, and “charge only for upscale or specialty wrap,” such as foil paper and wired ribbons.

Luscious, a store in Canton, GA, that sells imported perfumes and other scented products, has been very successful with a two-tiered wrapping system. Owner Marcy Brinegar says customers can choose free wrap—bright, seasonal tissue and coordinating tulle—or pay $5.95 for designer and antique papers with trim like organdy ribbon, taffeta, silk or fresh flowers, candies and potpourri. “Our wrapping helps us stand out from the crowd,” says Brinegar. “We’ve gotten amazing feedback,” which leaves no doubt in her mind that the gift-wrap, both paid and non-paid, is the reason many customers return. Plener suggests one more option: “The best situation I’ve come across is a client who charges $2 per package, and donates a portion of the profits to a charity.”

In the end, it may be that some kind of “free” is a must. “The marketplace has dictated that specialty retailers need to offer basic packaging free of charge,” says Ruggiero. “This might include adding ribbon and tissue to a bag.” And when it comes to boxes, charging extra isn’t a good idea: customers don’t like it (traditionally, boxes were always “free”) and usually won’t pay for them. For that reason, Plener says the price of the box should be built into the product price instead.

Your name here

Adding your store name and logo to bags, boxes, ribbons and labels adds to your packaging costs, but also help brands your store. Further, it adds a sense of stability and creates a more upscale image for your business. “Shopping bags in various sizes, along with ribbon and labels customized with a store’s logo, are the most popular methods to create a store brand,” says Compton. They’re “very affordable for today’s retailer who takes branding seriously and wants to encourage sales from regular customers and out-of-town guests. This is especially true for stores that aren’t in a metropolitan area, which must provide more incentives to increase store traffic.”

“It’s your best form of advertising,” Ruggiero says. Like a gift that keeps on giving, “the average store bag is reused by a customer three to four times—think about how many people are seeing that store name!”

“[Packaging] items, which personalize the customer’s shopping experience, are no longer exclusively ordered by large stores,” says Compton. But quantity is often an issue for small retailers. For example, shopping bags imprinted with large, intricate, multi-color logos will be pricey. Plus, most suppliers have minimum-order requirements that may be too much for a small retailer.

A good supplier will offer options. The small or start-up retailer might go with hot-stamped labels with the store name, logo and phone number, and stick the labels on inexpensive one-color bags. Plener says many clients will start out with a label and bags in three to five sizes. Plus, as Thomas points out, labels are versatile—you can put them on more than bags. “A retailer could order 1,000 hot-stamped labels and create an upscale look on bags, boxes, cards, etc. Or they could order 1,000 custom-printed bags and have their name on the bag only.”

Another money-saving option with some types of packaging is printing with ink, or “flexo-printing.” “Bold and simple usually produces the best results,” says Thomas. The drawback, though, is that it often looks less crisp on slick surfaces such as gift bags. Hot-stamping costs more, but the effect is usually consistently good. “A hot-stamp imprint applied to basic packaging, like a natural or white kraft gift bag, adds a surprising degree of elegance,” she says.

The wrap

In today’s busy world, people are less willing than they used to be to wrap gifts. Who has the time! But as Thomas says, this creates “a tremendous opportunity for retailers to maintain a bit of welcome tradition” by offering gift-wrap service. At the same time, they create three benefits for themselves—build a stronger brand, enhance their image, and entice customers to come back—all tied up with a ribbon and bow.

Bernadette Starzee

Starzee, a Long Island, NY writer who covers business, sports and lifestyle topics, is a senior writer for SRR. She can be reached at .

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