Holiday gift baskets can provide a high level of customer satisfaction while boosting seasonal sales. An assortment of tasty luxuries offers shopping convenience without the impersonality of gift certificates—and no return hassles for the recipient.

That flexibility drives the $2.8 billion-plus gift basket market, especially during the fourth quarter when seemingly every retailer—from supermarkets to florists to department stores to pharmacies—break out their own “specialty selections.

Fortunately, there is more to a successful gift basket than a few items and some shrink-wrap. The same principles that make a specialty food store outstanding—a combination of quality product and creative presentation—can maximize money-making creations. The following eight tactics from experienced gift basket merchants can help build holiday business—and parlay pleased seasonal customers into a year-round clientele.

Make It Memorable
The quality of the food and accoutrements inspires repeat sales. Specialty retailers should focus on what makes their product mix distinctive to create baskets that stand out among the grab-and-go offerings that proliferate the holiday retail scene. “Our reputation is one of top quality and the baskets reflect that, says Carol Frieser of The Grapevine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a 30-year-old gourmet shop offering specialty foods and wine. “We don’t want run-of-the-mill products. We focus on what tastes good, not what is big, cheap or pretty.

“The product is what will grab the recipient, agrees Sharon Grossetti, buyer and manager of the gift basket department at Woodlands Market, Kentfield, Calif. Woodlands offers a small-scale gift operation, specializing in high-end baskets priced upwards of $100, most made by Grossetti at home.

“I’m careful to marry the contents, she says. “I’ll put chocolate sauce with dried fruit or cheese with chutney. You want a variety of sweet, savory, and salty but the flavors and combinations should complement one another. Seven boxes of cookies and a jar of olives doesn’t work.

Move beyond the typical wine, cheese and fruit baskets of yesteryear by including out-of-the-ordinary foods that have modern appeal. “Don’t be esoteric; select useful things. For example, I use a lot of olives, but I’ll choose varieties stuffed with apricots or lemons rather than pimento, Grossetti continues. Unusual selections make the recipient remember the source as well as the basket, which is what the goal of the retailer should be.

Sell Emotions
No matter how upscale the selection, customers are buying more than food. Presentation and emotional appeal count.

“You need pizzazz or the gift won’t convey what the giver is trying to say, says Trudy Abood of, an offshoot of Chalifour’s Flowers, Gift and Gourmet Shop in Manchester, N.H. Under the direction of Abood’s son, Ryan, the gift basket segment has grown from a few holiday selections to account for 10 percent of total sales. “Whether it’s flowers or food, you’re selling emotions, not product. That is where creativity comes in, Abood says.

“Emotionally, you’re going for the ‘wow’ factor with a holiday gift, something that takes the person’s breath away, notes Cherie Reagor, proprietor of The Basket Connection in Ponte Vedra, Fla. Enhancements such as silk flowers, ivy, berries, bows and ribbons will add personality to the presentation. “People are buying to make an impression, continues Reagor. “You need more than cellophane wrapping and a stick-on bow or all of your designs will look alike.

Design can help a budget gift win raves, particularly among corporate accounts placing a large quantity order with a small per-gift price tag. “For wine bottles, we use a screened fabric that wraps easily like cellophane but has texture, says Reagor. Added decorations or wine glasses and crackers attached to the bottle are also eye-catching. “There’s a big difference between a plainly wrapped box of cookies, and one with ribbons, enhancements and a bow. It makes an impact, she adds.

Strive for balance between décor and contents. “People complain about overdone gift baskets, says The Grapevine’s Frieser. “Go easy on filler; you can make the design pretty but minimal.

Reach the largest potential audience by having something for everyone. “Don’t limit your gifts to just what you think is the style of the day, advises Dub Perry of Contri Bros. Gift Basket and Wine, a specialty food store with three locations in Birmingham, Ala. “Not everyone likes fluff or wine or wicker. Create a variety of looks.

Dress for the Holidays
Both inventory- and design-wise, be conservative when ordering holiday-themed foods. It is better to reflect the holiday through decoration or enhancements rather than specific products. “I’ll use a chocolate sauce that happens to have a red label and maybe a wine with a burgundy label and then will include a silk poinsettia and some gold and it will look very holiday-ish, says Woodland’s Grossetti. “I try not to be too cutesy; I’d rather have a dignified selection.

A holiday-themed container such as a sleigh or decorative tin can turn an existing basket design into a special occasion gift, and also ensures quick turnaround for seasonal orders. Go easy on the red and green, though, to avoid limiting sales. “We opt to have baskets look wintry rather than stress Christmas or have religious connotations, says Mary Schubert, co-owner of A Bolder Basket Kase, Boulder, Colo.

The Snack Factor
Snack foods are easily the most popular holiday basket selection, particularly among corporate buyers who want to reward their own staff or say thank you to customers.
All kinds of finger foods work well, particularly perennial favorites such as salsas, chips, pretzels, cookies, chocolate or cheese straws. Woodland Market’s Grossetti limits snack samplers to more sophisticated pairings, but does produce a variety for corporate accounts. “I try to include something distinctive like wasabi peas in addition to pretzels and cookies, she says.

High-end snacks are suitable for venues beyond office parties, such as hostess gifts. Salmon, horseradish spread, and tapenades are just a few examples of products that work because they can be served as hors d’oeuvres.

Snack items needn’t be limited to the decadent. Healthful themes, such as low-fat or low-carb, are growing to satisfy an ever more diet-conscious nation. “People go down one of two roads with snack baskets: the ‘Who Cares’ basket with chocolate and sweets or the ‘I’ll be good’ version, notes Abood. Nuts and dried fruit mixtures are increasingly popular for recipients who are concerned about nutrition.

Choose Broad Themes
Designs should not be limited to a holiday. Ethnic themes, meals at home, and personal hobbies are all popular. offers a New England Breakfast basket of pancake and waffle mixes and jams that is a top seller. The company also does a Tex Mex selection of salsa, chips and condiments and an Italian basket, complete with bruschetta, sauces, vinaigrette and biscotti. “Specific Christmas gift baskets do sell but about equal to other themed baskets, notes Abood.

Gifts that suit the whole household, such as ice cream toppings or a movie theme with flavored popcorns, work well. A Bolder Basket Kase offers an Eat Dessert First! basket that contains a fondue pot and forks, and a warming candle along with chocolate fondue that can be used for family enjoyment or holiday entertaining.

Including the whole family—even pets—helps sell baskets. offers Pampered Cat and Pampered Dog baskets with treats, toys and supplies. “It’s a great idea for the person who has everything, says Abood. “Some baskets come with water bowls and matching mugs for the ‘parents.’

Stay Local
A focus on local products appeals because customers can send a taste of their town to relatives and friends in distant areas. A Bolder Basket Kase, for instance, offers a Colorado Christmas basket full of locally made snacks and value-added items such as a book of popular day hikes in the region or a pack of Rocky Mountain postcards.

Other retailers stress products for which they are renowned. The Pancake Shop, a 64-year-old, family-owned restaurant near Arkansas’ Hot Springs National Park, has built a national business offering 15 themed gift baskets through its website. Private-label items from the eatery, such as the Pancake Shop Sampler containing pancake mix, apple butter and house-blend coffee, are best sellers, explains Buyer Courtney Regen.

Think Outside the Basket
Distinctive containers can make the presentation or be a gift in themselves. “What you discover at trade shows can inspire a remarkable gift, says Abood, who noticed wooden salad bowls at a gift show and built a Salad Sampler with dressings, dried fruit and nuts around them.

Plattered presentations, particularly of baked goods, also work as gifts. The Grapevine offers brownie, cookie and rugulach platters; 2,000 were sold last December. “We think of them as a corporate gift and promote them year-round. Last year, we sold a lot as Leap Year platters, notes Freiser.

Reach Every Price Point
While the $50 - $150 range is the most popular because of the selection it affords, retailers stress the importance of having something available in every price point for holiday budgets as well as last-minute gifts. In the $35-and-under range, stacked products offer value without the added material costs of a basket and enhancements. The look can be upscaled by wrapping the stack with a festive holiday bow.

The key is to show the consumer value, along with a distinct and festive look. Says A Bolder Basket Kase’s Schubert: “With a slow economy, people will spend on food before they buy something they think will sit on a shelf or in the closet.

Denise Purcell is managing editor of Specialty Food Magazine.