Personalized Gifts: Marketing to Everyone

Copyright © 2013 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in March 2013, Volume 38, No. 9 of The Engravers Journal
Wood photo plaques from B.F. Plastics, Inc., Findlay, OH, can be personalized with laser engraving and your customer’s photographs.

   Surveys show that the number one most popular gift is something (anything) that is personalized. Yet, it is amazing how many engraving shops offer precious little in personalized gift items. If you are one of those, perhaps you should ask yourself if you are missing out on something BIG.
   When I think of personalized gifts, there are lots of personalization methods that come to mind: rotary engraving, laser engraving, sublimation, direct print, embroidery, sandcarving, vinyl or even a combination of two or more of these methods on the same product. And what makes the personalized gift market even more appealing—and potentially profitable—is the endless list of products you can use these marking methods on! When you think about it, just about any blank product becomes a personalized gift when you add images or information that is meaningful to the person.
An Infinite Selection of Gifts
   Just so we are all on the same page, I am not talking about mass produced products like those done with screen printing or pad printing, although even those products can be further personalized and thus be included in my list of products. I’m talking about anything that can be personalized with a person’s name or photograph—what many shops would refer to as “one- ups.” This is an order where every single item is uniquely engraved, marked or otherwise personalized with a person’s name, photograph or other personal information.
   For instance, an ink pen can be engraved with a person’s name and, in doing so, it is transformed from a blank product into a treasured personalized gift. The same can be said about a thousand other items. Just to name a few, there are gift boxes, purses, glassware, mugs, clocks, travel mugs, thermos jugs, tote bags, baby bibs, jewelry, dog dishes and leashes, glass and wood cutting boards, oven mitts, flasks, coasters, place mats, computer bags, flashlights, key chains, lighters, knives, desk sets, desk easels, picture frames, clipboards, towels, stuffed animals, hats, beanies, ear warmers, serving trays, checkbook covers, cosmetic travel cases, clutch bags, stadium seats, door and office signs, license plates and license plate frames, photo albums, door hangers, barbecue utensil sets, chess sets, playing card and poker sets, pillows, baking pans, cup cozies, T-shirts, sport shirts, aprons, shorts, shower shoes, pet tags, dog tags (for people), baby blankets, throws with photos on them, toys, recipe boxes, pot holders, mousepads, holiday ornaments, sun catchers, medical alert jewelry, lapboards, portfolios and notebooks, ceramic tiles, murals of all types, awards and recognition products, and thumb drives.



   And don’t forget about products that acknowledge special events, such as baptisms, First Communions, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, promotions, thank-you gifts, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, birthdays and, of course, holiday gift giving. The list also includes wine bottles, wine bottle presentation boxes or bags, sports bags, backpacks, vinyl memorials for car windows, eyeglass cases, pouches and cases for cell phones and iPods, wind chimes, pencil holders, wall hangings, business card cases and holders, lanyards, name badges, luggage tags, trailer hitch covers, wristbands, Italian charm jewelry, neck ties, scarfs, nail files, felt pennants, puzzles, bookmarks, refrigerator magnets, gavels and poker chips. And these are just some of the items I offer in my showroom. There are many, many more!
   So where do you buy these items? Having a dependable source for each item you sell is imperative for several reasons: One, you don’t want to inventory more than a few of the items that you sell often, and many of the items you might want to offer but don’t want to actually inventory at all. Chess sets, for instance, make a great display item but they sell mostly during the holidays. Stocking 10 or 12 of these would be a poor use of resources, especially since, in my case, I can have as many as I want shipped directly from my supplier in two working days.
   The same is certainly true with soft goods such as T-shirts and other wearables. We could inventory $1,000 worth of shirts and never have the right size or color to match what a customer wants, so it’s just logical to depend on a wholesale distributor to provide these in one to two working days on an as-needed basis.
   Of course, some merchandise you will want to inventory, including a few of the products that you sell a lot of or items that your customer is most likely to need in a hurry, such as ink pens and key chains. Still, additional items are only a couple of days away. I recommend avoiding items you have to buy in large quantities or working with companies that have a high minimum order. The sidebar accompanying this article lists several industry suppliers of gift items.


Personalized game sets make fun gifts for everyone. Photo courtesy of LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ. A variety of wine presentation sets are available from Marco Awards Group, South Windsor, CT.

   Another great way to locate gift items, especially new and unusual products, is to visit a trade show where these, and other dealers products, are on display.
An Infinite Array of Customers
   Who is going to buy your personalized gift products? First, consider that everyone is a potential buyer—both men and women, and all age groups. In my business, I rarely sell to anyone under age 20, but that isn’t because I won’t or even that I don’t want to. It just happens that way. I do, however, sell to schools in the area and guess what? They sell to teens, so you can see how everyone is a potential buyer.
   You may find that women like to shop more than men. They appreciate a clean, neatly arranged showroom that has good lighting and is located in a neighborhood where they can feel safe. In my experience, men tend to buy faster—it’s usually in and out for them. Men more often ask for recommendations and very often buy the first thing I recommend, so be careful not to start with the least expensive gift you have to offer.
   Understand that most of the time customers are not completely honest about how much money they have to spend for a gift. Always offer something about 50% above what they say their limit is and go down as necessary.
   And while we are at it, another timeless marketing tip is to have attractive displays of the personalized gift items you sell. My customers want a quality product. If I don’t have a nice sample product on display, I won’t sell that item. Therefore, I never use seconds or mistakes as display samples. People cannot imagine what a product will look like after it is engraved, sublimated, etc. You must have finished samples to show them and, even then, it is sometimes difficult for them to picture what “their” product will look like when finished.
   People buy gifts when a need arises, such as a birthday, wedding or holiday (Christmas, Valentine’s Day, etc.). And remember, too, that just about any occasion can turn into a gift-giving event. For example, Halloween is not usually seen as a day for giving gifts, but that is changing. Someone might give personalized home décor, such as a door hanging, to a neighbor or friend, or personalized candy bags for little trick-or-treaters.
   Keep in mind that a potential customer may not need to purchase a gift on the day that they visit your business—but they will eventually! I often have people walk through my showroom and act as if they could not be more disinterested if I were selling broken auto parts, but when the need arises, they come back. Often, they come in with a specific idea in mind—something they saw in a previous visit—and sometimes, they come in just to look for ideas.
   Some customers are spending their own money for a gift to give to someone they care about. Others are spending their company’s money and are empowered to buy something to represent the company. These are often gifts for retirement, some sort of accomplishment, an anniversary or a promotion. If you remind them that they are not spending their own money (tactfully, of course), they usually relax and begin looking for the nicest gift they can buy that is within the budget they were assigned.
   As I’ve mentioned before, the gift market can expand far beyond your own shop walls. Schools make a great reseller of personalized products. So do websites, clubs and non-profit organizations, including churches. Here are a few resellers you might consider to expand your gift business:


A sublimated mouse pad makes a functional gift that can be used every day. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics, Minneapolis, MN. Condé Systems, Inc. offers SubliSLATE for sublimation. This fine-grained sedimentary rock is ideal for cherished photographs such as a family vacation.

   Build a Website: Websites can be both extensive and expensive. If you don’t already have one, start small with a dozen or so gift items and let it grow with you. Google, Go-Daddy and Yahoo all offer very inexpensive “template websites” you can build yourself to get started.
   Churches: Churchgoers love their churches. They love having things with a picture of their church on them: shirts, license plates, purses, portfolios, cutting boards, wall hangings, key chains and coffee cups. Contact the church office and ask who might be interested in sponsoring the sale of such items so their organization might make some extra money. Some examples might be a missionary group, youth group, building fund, Sunday school class, etc. Although I occasionally run across a church that has no interest in selling anything, most are quite receptive. Don’t forget to ask about church schools or child care programs. They are always looking for ways of making extra money.
   Volunteer Fire Departments: All firemen, and all first responders for that matter, take great pride in what they do. They love their fire trucks or ambulances and love to have things that relate to firefighting, EMT, etc. Companies like OurDesigns (www.ourdesigns.com) cater to selling all kinds of gift items to this huge customer base. You can have a big part of this market just for the asking. Make up a few samples or a color brochure with pictures of products for them to see.
   Schools: Most schools have a school store where they sell pencils and candy. Many also sell school spirit clothes (usually screen printed) or take orders for custom clothes. Your gift items with the child’s name and the school logo or mascot on them make great gifts for everyone—students and parents alike. Remember, too, that this is a time for boyfriends and girlfriends so be sure to offer items that can be worn by both and that have both of their names on them.
   Hobby Clubs: What clubs do you or your friends belong to? It could be a photography club, model railroad club, historical society, pet organization, scrapbooking club, quilting or sewing circle, auto enthusiast group, SCUBA club, boating club, fishing club, etc. Each one of these, and a thousand more, make perfect places to market gift items. This can be done in a variety of ways including, as mentioned before, printing a color brochure or showing them actual samples. You can visit the club from time to time and take orders or assign someone to be responsible for selling your gift items. The club, of course, has to make a percentage, but they are usually quite happy to pay a premium for special orders because most clubs are too small to have anything done in bulk.

There are many products available for sublimation. This sublimatable cake pan is available from Laser Reproductions, Inc., Skokie, IL.

   Social Media: Get on Facebook, Twitter or some other form of social media and start talking about the gift items you have to offer. Word gets around in social media channels and there is nothing wrong with your talking up a new product. You can even make a business page if you like. One of the most productive techniques I have seen is posting a photo of your spouse or child using or wearing the item you want to promote and then telling all about the event where it was used.
   Amazon.com: Amazon has several plans which allow you to sell products through them, including personalized gift products. Some plans carry a fairly heavy commission and even a monthly fee, but because their shipping fees are so much lower than what you and I would normally pay, if you buy your shipping from amazon.com, you may save enough money to cover most of the fees.
   Create traffic: The secret of building a gift module into your business is “traffic.” By traffic, I mean the number of potential buyers you can get through your door. This can be done in many ways, including holding an open house, distributing coupons, customer referrals and advertising either in print or on radio or TV.
   The newest way to create customer traffic is through the U.S. Post Office. I haven’t tried this yet, but it looks like the perfect way to promote personalized gifts. The U.S. Post Office is offering a door-to-door mailing approach that is very affordable and can be tightly controlled so the mailing hits the homes and businesses you want it to without having to know any names or addresses other than a zip code. It is called “Every Door Direct Mail.” This is not the same as bulk mail and does not require a permit or an annual fee. You pay only for the number of pieces you mail and you can mail as few as 1,000 or as many as 5,000 per day. The cost is roughly $145 per 1,000 for postage and about $225 for printing (you can print your own if you prefer). That is about $370 for the mailing, which is very inexpensive. There are some specifications that must be followed when printing the piece to be mailed. To learn more, visit www.usps.com/every-door-direct-mail.htm or visit your local post office. Several companies will print these pieces to meet the specifications including VistaPrint.com, SonicPrint.com or PostCardMainia.com. Once you have decided to use this service, you will be able to select, down to the carrier routes, who will receive your mailing.
   At the Very Least: Here are two things you can do to advertise your venture into the gift market and if you do nothing else, at least do one or both of these: One, have the word “GIFTS” placed on your front window in the biggest letters possible. This can be done with vinyl and you might be able to do it yourself if you have a vinyl cutter. Two, buy a flag or two that say “GIFTS” and mount them in front of your shop, on your sign on the highway or anywhere else the public will see them. A lot of people are opting for “bow flags” that can be mounted close to the highway and don’t require wind to be read. These are all available from flag manufacturers or can be custom made. Just Google “flags” and you will find a host of them. However you do it, DO IT.

Crystal ornaments and paperweights, such as these from Johnson Plastics, are good sellers year-round.



Personalizing Gifts: The Techniques
   Of course, the types of products you offer will depend on the types of equipment you have available. If you only have sublimation equipment, then you will be limited to products that can be sublimated. If you have a laser, you can add all of those products that can be laser engraved, and so on. Here is a quick overview of the most common methods:
   Decorating by Hand: We often overlook this technique, but many products can be personalized by hand. Painting, decals, calligraphy, decou-page, lamination, rhinestoning, patches, rubber stamps, pen and ink, and photography are all viable options. If you have this ability and the interest, you can venture into the personalized gift business, even without any of the fancy equipment.
   Rotary Engraving: We have been using rotary engraving for decades. At first, it consisted of little more than “scratching” letters onto metal, but today’s software and computerized equipment makes this a very competitive tool for the personalized gift market. Rotary engraving offers the ability to engrave on so many types of materials, including those that lasers cannot. It opens a laundry list of possibilities, including plastics, metals, wood, glass, acrylic, jewelry, watches, medallions and just about anything else you can hold in the machine.
   CO2 Laser Engraving: CO2 lasers have done much to broaden the possibilities in the gift market. Like rotary systems, this equipment can mark some plastics, some acrylics, coated metals and, by using a laser-markable coating, some uncoated metals and glass. The beauty of a CO2 laser is the fact that it never touches the product being marked so using jigs and clamps to hold products in the machine is usually unnecessary. In many cases, laser engraving is also much faster than rotary engraving and the equipment costs about the same or less to purchase.
   Fiber Laser Engraving: Fiber lasers are a variation of the YAG family of lasers. An advantage of these lasers is their ability to mark uncoated metals. Fiber lasers also produce a very small spot size that allows you to engrave finely detailed photographs and very small text (down to two points in size). Note, too, that some manufacturers have introduced systems that combine both fiber and CO2 laser sources into one system to provide both capabilities in one unit.
   Embroidery: Embroidery is one of the most highly desired forms of marking fabric, be it a shirt or a tote bag, due to the high quality look and feel that the process produces. Computerized embroidery machines are available with single and multiple heads, and range from just a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands. As with other marking methods, the embroidery process does involve a learning curve and a good working knowledge of computer graphics, such as CorelDRAW, to be able to create your own designs. However, there are many companies that you can purchase stock and custom designs from, as well as appliques and other decorations for wearables. Another viable option, particularly if you only have occasional embroidery orders, is to job out embroidery work to a company that offers services for the trade.
   Sublimation: Sublimation is one of the most common methods of producing gift products because of its low entry cost, the wide variety of products available and the high quality of the color images produced by sublimation. Sometimes, though, the word “sublimation” carries with it negative baggage both for the producer and the customer. For this reason, most shops have given it a more “customer friendly” name such as “photo gifting” or “digital transfer” to avoid any confusion with the sublimation of even a few years ago versus what we have today. Products are much improved, more UV-resistant and easier to make while the printers used are miles above the quality of those used just a decade ago.
   Some limitations still exist for sublimated products: UV-instability limits how long something can be exposed to sunlight without fading. My own experience has taught me that some products resist fading for up to 18 months while others are limited to about 3 months of continuous direct exposure. Used as interior products and not in front of a sunlit window, most products will last a lifetime without any fading at all.

Topmost World, Inc., Montclair, CA, offers a wide selection of optic crystal and glass blanks designed with personalization in mind.

   Direct Print to Fabric: This is a fairly new process most commonly used for printing shirts but can also be used for printing other flat material that is receptive to the ink. These machines are expensive but they offer something few other systems can: the ability to print full color, including white ink on black fabric. This is done by under-printing the image with several coats of white ink before printing with colored inks. This is surprisingly expensive to do, although the cost of printing a full-color image on a light-colored shirt is fairly inexpensive. The perceived advantage of this system is that it can print on 100% cotton fabric while sublimation, its closest competitor, requires 100% polyester. This was more of a perceived advantage by customers in years past than it is now but, still, many customers prefer cotton. This method offers a variety of machines ranging from the ability to make one shirt at a time to printing multiples.
   UV Direct Print: This is the newest technology in our industry and is still pretty expensive with a starter system in the $20K range, but some of its “tricks” are quite amazing. This system creates a product that, when printed on an exterior grade substrate, is totally UV stable and exterior capable. This includes signage and gift items made from almost anything you can name. It’s really only limited by what you can get to go through the flatbed printer. Some systems, for example, can be used to print photos and full-color images on items such as golf balls, hockey pucks and other customized sporting goods. Inks are fairly inexpensive and can be purchased in bulk and, to my knowledge, there have been no clogging issues with the printers.
   Sandblasting: Sandblasting, or sandcarving as many prefer calling it in our industry, is among the oldest methods of marking products we have. Blasting has been used for many years for all kinds of things such as cleaning metal parts during manufacture, removing graffiti from buildings and decorating glassware. It wasn’t until the early ‘90s that we began to see the ability to make stencils in-house and that was when sandcarving emerged as a good choice for personalized products such as gifts. Prior to that time, crude metal stencils had to be created either by hand or by chemical etching. They were expensive, required time to obtain and could only be used for a limited number of pieces. They were too expensive, however, to be used for only one or two pieces and thrown away. Today’s market offers a variety of materials for making your own graphically-intricate stencils for just pennies each.
   Most commonly used with glass or stone, sandblasting can be used with almost any hard surface including glass, stone, marble, metal, high density plastics, such as those used in countertops, and most woods. Sandblasting is a labor intensive method but this can be greatly reduced by combining orders until you have several jobs to complete and then doing them all at once since it usually takes just as long to make one stencil as it does to make 10 or 20 (depending on size). The real time stealer is in masking the product to be blasted to prevent “over blast,” but this can be greatly reduced by making the stencils extra-large or creating a reusable mask from foam and a piece of hardboard—techniques that are easy to learn from the abundance of training material available.
   Vinyl: If you have a vinyl cutter, there are some things you can offer that most shops can’t. These include lettering for car windows. Be it the little people you see on the backs of many vans, a memorial display of a loved one who has passed on or a monogram on the doors or license plates, there are a great many things you can make and personalize with vinyl. These machines run from just a few hundred dollars to several thousand, depending on the size and the types of materials it can handle, such as rhinestone masks, stencil material for sandblasting or metallic materials.
   Rhinestones: One of the hottest trends happening right now, both in North America and in Europe, is creating custom rhinestone apparel. The process involves creating a template for the rhinestone design by cutting holes into material using your rotary engraving machine, laser or vinyl cutter. Special software is available to make designing a rhinestone template amazingly easy. Templates for these stones can also be purchased pre-made. Once you have the template, you pour the rhinestones over the template and brush them into the holes. Then use transfer tape to remove the stones and a heat press to apply the rhinestone design to the garment. The same heat press used for sublimation or heat transfer can be used for setting rhinestones.
   Heat Transfers: Heat transfers are another imprinting option that has been around for many years that can be used to print full-color images on wearables, mouse pads, mugs and more. The process is similar to sublimation except that instead of dying the substrate, you are printing the image onto special transfer paper. The transfer paper has a plastic coating on one side and when you print a transfer using a color laser printer you are actually printing the image into the coating. When you use a heat press to transfer the design, you are actually “melting” the image onto the substrate. This is why heat transfers result in an image that has a stiffer feel on some substrates, such as T-shirts, as opposed to sublimation where the image is dyed.

Examples of glass/crystal items with full-color graphics created using the Chroma Crystal unit from QLT.com, Marlboro, NJ. This large crystal pendant from Laser Reproductions, Inc. offers ample room for a sublimated photograph.

   My experience has taught me that some heat transfer systems are far superior to others so do your homework before buying, remembering that support is everything. Heat transfers can be applied to just about any substrate that can withstand the 250°F temperature of the heat press. They work on glass, wood, most plastics, acrylics and metal. Using special techniques, they can also be applied to cylindrical products. An advantage of heat transfers is that they can be applied to dark fabrics and materials without polyester content.
   Crystal Imaging: There are a couple of companies that offer the ability to add a translucent full-color image or photograph to the back of crystal (glass) blanks to create a very attractive custom gift. This method works surprisingly well, is inexpensive to get into and the products are surprisingly inexpensive to make. The process involves using an inkjet printer to print the image onto a special piece of plastic, applying the plastic to the back of a piece of crystal with special adhesive and then exposing it in a UV light box to laminate the image to a piece of solid crystal. The process only takes minutes and the result is a vivid, full-color product that makes an excellent gift and/or heirloom. QLT.com (formerly CASI/QLT) offers the Chroma Crystal system for this process which I wrote a product review about a few years ago (“Imprinting Glass: Chroma Crystal by CASI/QLT,” Sep. 08) if you’re interested in more information.
   AcryliPrint: Today there are different ways to incorporate color onto acrylic blanks, one of which is the AcryliPrint process by Acrylic Idea Factory. The process involves printing a color image on paper and then applying the printed graphic onto a specially-coated self-adhesive blank (called FusionBlanks). You then process the acrylic in the FusionProcessor, which is essentially a large heat press. You can use this process to print vibrantly colored images and photographs onto a variety of acrylic products.
   One might ask why screen printing isn’t listed and that is a good question. Screen printing has certainly been around for a long time and has proven itself as a stable and popular method of marking all kinds of things. What it generally is not good at is the ability to economically mark only one or two items. The cost and time required to make a stencil, load it, ink it and then clean and store it after use just doesn’t make it a good method for making one-up products. Professional screen printers tell me they need at least 50 pieces, if not many more, to break even when making a stencil.
Are You Ready for the Personalized Gift Market?
   If you already use any one of these marking methods in your business, or one I have overlooked, you are ready to enter the gift market. Gift items like those I mentioned at the beginning of this article are easy to obtain and are highly prized by the public when they are customized with personal images and information.
   Getting into the personalized gift market will require some type of marketing, however, so expect to spend some time and at least a little money on that, but even there, start small and find out what sells and who your customers are before plunking down a wad of cash. It may be that you have enough traffic through your shop already to see an increase in business just by offering some gift items, but however you choose to do it, you can be sure that there is a viable market there—you just have to find the magic key to open it. Just because the economy is poor doesn’t mean people have stopped buying gifts—in fact, they haven’t at all. What they have done is become a wiser shopper, looking not just at price but looking for something that someone will appreciate both at the time it is given and for many years in the future.
   One adage I have heard from the beginning of my business days, and it has proven true for me, is “people never throw away anything with their name on it.” Maybe it’s ego, maybe sentimental value, maybe something else, but whatever causes this to happen, we should capitalize on it. Educate your customers to this fact. They probably have a dozen or more items in their home or office that they have kept over the years, moved from place to place and considered tossing a dozen times but never did. Why? Because it has their name on it.
   There is plenty of room in the gift market. Although there are thousands of gift shops of all kinds, you can offer something most of them cannot—personalization. What are you waiting for?

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