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
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
, 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.