Brand Bah Humbug! Scrooge Lives Again at Heath Ceramics
December 23, 2009 ‐ 6 comments
The other day BrandCultureTalk embarked on a bit of winter solstice shopping hoping to pick up a few holiday tokens of appreciation for some of our hardworking colleagues.  Seeking to source gifts a bit more bespoke than yet another copy of The Hangover at Best Buy, we braved the Los Angeles holiday hordes to visit Heath Ceramics in search of some timeless treasures, or as Heath puts it, "simple, good things for good people." Heath Ceramics Logo For those unfamiliar with Heath Ceramics, it is the echt purveyor of beautiful artisan ceramic dinnerware, tile and accessories -- pieces that are as functional and durable as they are visually appealing and sensuous to hold.  A California institution since 1948, for at least half a century Heath ceramics has fired clay in Sausalito to grace tables as modest as our own and as grand as those of  Chez Panisse and the Four Seasons. After much deliberation selecting an array of items ranging from salad bowls to bud vases we thought were closely aligned in type and hue for our intended recipients, we happily arrived at the register with nine separate gifts to be purchased and packed.  It was there that we were informed that it was Heath Ceramics policy to provide one box for every $200 in purchases; because our total purchase was "only" about $1,100, we would receive five boxes and could purchase additional packaging for $5 each.  We protested to the sales associate that surely she could find it in her holiday heart to throw in four more boxes gratis -- representing a value of 2% of our overall purchase.  Our entreaty was met not with a "yes, absolutely," a "sure" or even a begrudging "ok," but by a question of whether we would try to negotiate something for free if we were shopping at Crate & Barrel (an incoherent comparison to us insofar as Crate & Barrel provides free gift boxes with all purchases). We then appealed to the store manager, who reiterated the policy with equal intransigence and informed us that they were "really being more than fair" in providing five free boxes, and that we could imagine "how crazy it would get" if they wrapped up all our purchases for free (a puzzling assertion too as we were the only customers in the store).  The policy was particularly inexplicable because the company's website currently (through December 31, 2009) offers "Free Shipping" on any order over $75 -- which by definition would include a box and packaging! The Heath Ceramics wrapping policy is isn't just bad business, it's bad branding.  Of course we wanted our gifts to arrive in one piece and wanted them packed properly.  And though it is always the thought that counts in gift-giving, presentation matters too.  Besides, we also wanted our recipients to know where the gifts came from and how we had come to select them -- how we had attempted to find gifts somewhat more personal than Starbucks Gift Cards while at the same time attempting in some small to support a California economy suffering from a 12.5% unemployment rate.   The right wrapping and packaging can add immeasurably to a gift's impact, and indeed, the practice of wrapping gifts first came into widespread use during the Great Depression during the 1930s when the gifts themselves were by necessity more modest. Most retailers understand these motivations -- and their brand-building potential -- implicitly.  Free wrapping isn't limited to high-end retailers like Barney's, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, but also at your quotidian Barnes & Noble.  Whether purchasing a $125 silver key fob or a $1,000,000 engagement ring, every customer receives a complimentary, iconic Tiffany & Co. blue box, tied with a bow that miraculously has no knot (it would wrinkle the ribbon) that takes intensive training and hours of practice to master. The Heath Ceramics $200 Per Box Policy is the precise opposite of the spirit of giving:  if you're too cheap (or impecunious) to spend at least $200 a gift, you don't deserve to have it beautifully presented --  or even protected from breaking on the ride home.  Now Tiffany's gross margins are 57% (!), allowing considerable room to provide free boxes and ribbons.  But don't forget, Tiffany sells diamonds; Heath Ceramics sells dirt (albeit very pretty baked and glazed dirt); both come from the ground, but the former by any calculus offers a considerably higher cost of goods sold.  Heath Ceramics is a private company and we can't find out their margins, but we presume that there might be some room in the overall budget to provide a box for a $150 bowl, even if it fails to meet the $200 threshold. And in the end, of course it wasn't the extra $20 that mattered, it was the utter lack of reciprocity we felt from everyone we encountered at Heath Ceramics during the purchase process -- that they didn't care a whit about losing a $1,100 sale over four cardboard boxes and some string.  But just because Heath Ceramics didn't care about our business doesn't mean that we were entirely without alternatives.  We left our bowls and bud vases on the counter and ended up across town at Design Within Reach.  Brittany (who had an MS in Decorative Art from Parsons) helped us find some perfect gifts, including some fantastic cutting boards very similar to some we'd eyed hanging on the wall at Heath Ceramics.  And she wrapped and packaged each gift with alacrity . . . gratis.  From now on, we'll leave Heath Ceramics to their myriad fans from The Slanted Door and Auberge du Soleil, inter alia.  Next year we'll start our holiday search at DWR.
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Recession Silver Lining: Better Brand Experience at Best Buy, CB2, Corner Bakery and Verizon(?)!
April 13, 2010 2:05 pm
[...] or willing to work within our more modest means (in stark contrast to our recent experience at Heath Ceramics), outfitting the plupart of our new digs in short [...]
January 13, 2010 4:09 pm
I am impressed by the commenters' quality commenting in the wee hrs of Xmas eve. ... The environmentally based argument against free boxing didn't make much sense though. Perhaps it wld be better to coach salespeople to read the room and not discourage a happy customer on an occasion like this. Stores now regularly give customers a packaging-lite option, and that's great, but to not more readily accommodate someone who needs the full service seems quite harsh.
January 10, 2010 11:41 am
Jon: Glad you had such a nice experience with us at DWR, and thanks for the shout out! Hope to see you back here soon Best wishes for the New Year, Brittany Gersh
December 24, 2009 2:44 am
Thanks for your comment Catherine Bailey, Owner of Heath Ceramics. We're certainly in alignment with your aspiration for "better quality and less consumption." In fact, the storied history of your company, its commitment to sustainability and the quality and beauty of your products are what attracted us to your shop in the first place. If you want to encourage lower-impact living, we're on board! We will not presume to tell you how to run your obviously tremendously successful business. But the fact that your staff and management absolutely refused to budge one iota when we asked them make an exception to your (unstated to us) policy to "lessen box consumption" unless we spent $200 per gift (at which point the theoretical objection would have apparently vanished) is what soured us on Heath Ceramics. This seemed to us to be more a matter of trying to extract an incremental $20 -- which really, genuinely surprised us -- rather than saving the planet. As brand folks, we'd say if your frugality with boxes really comes from an environmental perspective, make it a point of honor: no boxes for anyone whether they spend $20, $2,000 or $20,000, rather than have what seems to be an arbitrary price cutoff where one finally earns the right to a gift box.
December 24, 2009 1:45 am
I'm sorry about your experience, it is certainly not our intent to make our customers feel like we don't care about them. Our frugalness with our boxes comes more from an environmental perspective, boxes are more expensive then you would think, but it's not really about the cost. I want to promote less packaging, so we don't have Heath boxes printed up, and we don't stock a lot of extra boxes because we offer free gift wrapping in a brown bag, with a rubber stamped logo and some tissue, and a twine bow. It's not Tiffany's fancy box for sure, but we're not a fancy company. For purchases that are not gifts we wrap in newspaper, and try to re-use boxes (it's the way we've done it for 60 years). We also don't charge extra for boxes when shipping and charge very little for shipping. The only boxes we have in our LA store are shipping boxes, we do use them for gift wrapping when it's requested, but try to align our policies with our values which revolve around better quality and less consumption. I'm sorry that your experience was a negative one, and that our attempt to lessen box consumption prompted such bad impression and negative review of my company. I do think that our current gift wrapping (in a bag) can be improved (it's not ideal for larger pieces) and we'll continue to think creatively on how we can package for gift giving with less packaging, hopefully you'll have a better impression if you visit again. -catherine bailey (owner - heath)
Brand Bah Humbug! Scrooge Lives at Heath Ceramics | Beauty of Ceramics
December 24, 2009 12:05 am
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