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Trend Watch: The gift of grub

Gift-basket orders increasingly driven by Web site sales

The food-gift market is projected to surpass $23
    billion in sales by 2010. - Photo courtesy of Blue Crab Bay Co.
By Lauren Kramer
November 01, 2007

Food gifts are becoming an increasingly popular option for consumers struggling to find the perfect gift for their friends, family and business associates. Fueled by an interest in gourmet and natural/organic foods and aided by increased online orders, the market for consumer food gifts grew 47 percent from 2004 to 2006, according to "Food Gifting in the United States," a recent study by New York market research publisher Packaged Facts. The corporate market for food gifts is estimated at $2.5 billion, or about one-third of the total market, the study says.

While chocolates are still the top food gift, the use of other shelf-stable items in baskets is reflecting changing customer tastes. For those selling gift baskets, customization and personalization are pivotal points of differentiation over gift baskets sold at chain stores such as Wal-Mart and Target, according to Packaged Facts.

Personalization is the hallmark for companies like Seafood Inc. in Charleston, Ore. Owner Marvin Warman says his wholesale business, SM Seafoods, received so many requests for 10 or 20 pounds of product that in August he decided to start selling gift baskets containing fresh or flash-frozen seafood.

"I've never seen anything quite as nice as our gift baskets," says Warman, who packages his gift baskets in wooden pirate chests. "These are not cheesy woven baskets like everyone and their grandma does. We got our chests out of China, and the largest are the size of a large footlocker. They're meant to be kept as a keepsake."

The Tuna Lovers' Ultimate Basket contains smoked ahi tuna, cans of albacore tuna and tuna loin, while the Smoked Baskets have a sample of various smoked seafood including salmon, oysters, tuna and black cod. The baskets range in price from $29.99 to $249.99, excluding shipping. The company also sells olive oil, sea salt, mixes for smoking fish and decorative nautical items that can be added to each gift basket.

"You know the experience of people going up the coast and getting wonderful fresh seafood off of the dock?" says Warman. "That's what we provide."

Seafood Inc. has a dedicated online camera on the dock so customers can see their gift 
basket being made, and can handpick the lobster or crab.

"You'll get an e-mail saying log on at this time and see it being made, or call in and stipulate which piece of seafood you want," Warman says. "I have 16 cameras watching my dock, with one on each tank, so it's easy to pick out your individual crab."

Warman ships the baskets overnight, adding sufficient dry ice to keep the seafood at the correct temperature.

"The fact that we're a fishery is a huge benefit in being able to offer fresh baskets," he explains. "For example, our oysters are all live. We do all of our own canning. Everything you buy from us is fish from this year."

Product freshness is an aspect at the forefront of another Charleston-based company, this one across the country in South Carolina. Charleston Seafood has sold seafood gift baskets for the past decade, with live items shipped overnight and others shipped in two days using gel packs and heavy, Department of Transportation-approved coolers.

"Our customers are interested in fish and that's what we specialize in, so we don't get into themed gift baskets," says Ron Manz, company owner. "We're unique in that we process your order the same day it is shipped. For example, if you order salmon steaks, they are cut off the fish that day, vacuum sealed and shipped. Each item is labeled and dated so people know how fresh it is, and that's important, because people need to have confidence in their supplier. We want our seafood to arrive fresh, cold and delicious."

Manz says Charleston Seafood was among the first online seafood companies when it entered the gift-basket business 10 years ago.

"Our variety is so extensive that we haven't seen a demand for customization," he says. "We seem to have every combination of gift basket covered."

Charleston Seafood's online orders have increased 20 percent in recent months. Wherever the orders come from, Manz includes instructions on how to store and handle the fish, a 100 percent money-back guarantee and a customer appreciation letter.

By contrast, the contents of seafood gift baskets sold by Blue Crab Bay Co. are all shelf stable. The Melfa, Va., company sells seafood gift baskets and a line of seafood-related products.

"We're finding that customers like items that don't need a lot of preparation, but appear time consuming," says Kelly Drummond, Blue Crab Bay's public relations and marketing coordinator. "For example, our seafood cheese ball kits are great for entertaining, but don't require much time or effort on the part of the consumer. The trend is for convenience: simplicity but an air of elegance to the food items."

The company's gift baskets range from $30 to $120 and are popular because they "conjure up memories of great times spent on the water with family and friends," says Drummond. Personal gifting constitutes 80 percent of Blue Crab Bay's business, with corporate gifting representing the remainder.

Blue Crab Bay witnessed a 40 percent increase in online orders last year, and as a result has opted to publish a smaller 12-page catalog. This is the first year the company reduced its print catalog from the traditional 24 pages since its inception 21 years ago.

"People try our products and then request a catalog," she explains. "We also have regular product features on the Food Network, product referrals and people who see us at trade shows."

There is good news ahead according to the Packaged Facts study, which predicts the market for food gifts will grow another 45 percent by 2010, exceeding $23 billion in sales. The reason? Food gifts are certain to please, easy to share and provide an experience or indulgence - fishy or otherwise.


Contributing Editor Lauren Kra m er lives in British Columbia


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