For that fussy executive, Balok would try a yo-yo By KAREN GENGENBACHEDDY
Elaine Balokhs gifts list is so long this year that she’s turning over her law practice to a colleague and coverting her downtown office to a gift showroom.
No, the office full of gifts isn’t all for her friends and family. The array of 130 gifts is for customers of her business, Gift Connection, which is going on its third holiday season.
Gift Connection selects, wraps and delivers gifts priced from $5 to $300. The service charge is $6.50 per gift, with a discount for larger orders. Balok generally goes to her clients, but during December, her downtown office will be open for perusal several afternoons a week.
“We’re here to make the lives of business people easier and to make it convenient for them to provide thank yous, welcoming VIP gifts, employee awards, and gifts for their family and friends.,” says Balok, 40.
Gift Connection initially catered to small to medium-sized businesses in the downtown area. But now she fills requests throughout San Diego County.
“Most people tell me they could easily call the florist, but they want to do something different,” says Balok, who strives to tailor her gifts to meet special needs.
“For one company we do an employee-of-the-month gift basket. It contains business items like a leather portfolio, a Cross pen set, not4e pads and gold-plated paper clips,” she says. “For one dentist who wanted to say thanks without promoting tooth decay, we created baskets with an assortment of popcorns.”
For the holidays, Balok says, “The most consistent request is a gift basket with gourmet foods. But this year I’m getting requests for more fun items. California people take themselves less seriously,. so hardwood yo-yos for the excutive, money socks for financial people or handmade kaleidoscopes are some high-class fun itmes.”
Balok buys at gift shows from Los Angeles to New York. For unique items, she searches out craftpeople. Two of her local sources are Ray Gordon, who hand carves wooden clocks — a favorite with attorneys — and Carrara di Carrara, who supplies her with marble vases. For more traditional items, she deals with major gift and jewelry companies.
She’s also developed her own line of recycled note pads.
Balok became a professional shopper in 1985. With a partner who has since left, she used $25,000 in savings to buy Gift Connection’s initial $12,000 inventory.
“I’m a born shopper,” she explains. “All the articles about starting a small business say go into something you know about and, I though I knew something about this one.”
Her profit comes from her ability to buy wholesale from vendors rather than from her service charge. She pays a secretary, one part-time employee, and takes on extra help during the holidays. She expects to break into the black this year with sales of $50,000.
Balok thinks she’s profiting from a change in people’s attitudes. “Years ago I waxed my own car,” She says. “Now I don’t do that anymoer. The change in attitude is toward services.”
“All the articles about strting a small business say go into something you know about, and I thought I knew something about this one.”
Lorrain Griswold, sales manager for Money Financial Services, agrees. “I work and have a 4-month-old baby,” Griswold says, “and I just don’t have the time to go out and shop.” She turned to Balok for National Secretaries Week gifts for her office staff and for a Valentine’s Day gift for her husband.
Eleanor Jaeschke, vice president of accounting at N.N. Jaeschke Inc., a property management and service business, used Balok for two years to put together 100 employee Christmas baskets. Says Jaescheke: “We also use her for our employee-of-the-month program. I call her a few days before the award, give her some information about the person, and she takes it from there.”
Gift Connection is hardly Balok’s first project. She says she usually does two or three things at once. In addition to a law degree, she has a background in administration.
She’s worked for six years as an assistant to three city managers: Ray Blair, Sy Murray and John Lockwood. While in the city manager’s office, she reorganized the paramedic system and worked on the dial-a-ride and Sander projects. She quit her part-time county job in April to devote full time to her gift business.
Balok is quite aware, however, that she’s running a risky enterprise. Four personal shopping services listed in the March 1987 Yellow Pages have gone under. “I think that at the holidays, people consider this an interesting business. They get started and then are unable to carry it through. I think we’ve lasted because we plan for peaks by adding extra people and supplies, and we cultivate our holiday customers and bring to their attention other times during the year to thank people and get their company’s name out,” she says.
Balok’s competitors range from florists to specialty advertising people. One well-established local speciality advertiser is The Recognition People. As a listed distributor for the Advertising Specialty Institute, the firm has access to hundreds of manufacturers and suppliers, says owner Augie Sindone.
He says he can do gift baskets too, but notes he’s somewhat more quantity-oriented with the distributors, setting both the price and the number of items he needs to order. Sindone lists such clients as PSA and Merrill Lynch.
Key to distinguishing Gift Connection, Balok says, are variety and flexibility. “We try to reach those companies who may not want pen and pencil sets for everyone, and we offer the idea of general gifts. I get last minute calls from people saying, “The company is having a dinner party and I need a hostess gift for tomorrow night,’ or ‘We have an employee who is ill and we want to get something right over to the hospital.’” She carries an inventory to accommodate last minute requests.
Balok’s plans for the future include developing a catalogue and tapping the convention and business travelers’ market. She is a member of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau and has been active on its host committee.