Workshop Explores Gift Baskets as a Way to Boost Farm Market Income

2/8/2014 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

HERSHEY, Pa. — Tom and Pam Newell took their gift-basket road show to Chocolatetown on Monday, Jan. 27, as part of the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention at the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center in Hershey, Pa. The Newells addressed a crowd of about 40 basketeers and would-be basketeers who had each paid $65 to see and talk to the Newells about the gift basket business.

This business, it turns out, which can be huge. Before the Newells launched their Gift Basket School program, their retail gift-basket business in Canton, Ohio, was a multi-million dollar enterprise that delivered over 950 baskets a day. They shipped gift baskets, had baskets delivered to homes and businesses by a corps of retired-guy drivers, and they sold them in their own retail stores.

Gift baskets can also be a one-person, home-based business. Or they can be a profitable add-on to a farm market store or stand.

Tina Leader, who manages the gift basket department at Brown’s Orchard and Farm Market in Loganville, Pa., is what Pam Newell would call a “GBP.” That stands for “gift basket preparer,” a title to which Newell assigns the same weight as RN or CPA because, she said, “We are educated and experienced professionals.” Leader also helped organize and line up sponsors for the workshop.

Angela Jurick is definitely not a GBP. She is a PhD plant pathologist in a pressure-cooker job who said she needs a stress-relieving hobby. She accompanied her husband to the convention and wanted to learn more about the gift basket business/hobby. And, along with all the other attendees, she actually filled a basket with apples, pears, cheese, muffins, apple butter and honey. The finished baskets were shrink-wrapped and covered with cellophane — “cello” to the initiated — and then went home with their creators.

Josh Smith is the outside sales and marketing director for Frecon Farms in Boyertown, Pa. The Frecon family began with an orchard in 1944, and the business now includes pick-your-own, a retail store, stands in a number of nearby farmers markets and a cidery — which is like a brewery, but with apples. Gift baskets have been part of the Frecon business for some time, and Smith was at the workshop to pick up some pointers to share with the other Frecon employees.

Even to the untutored eye, Smith’s basket was a finely crafted work of art. However, he stressed the “outside” part of his job title and said he didn’t plan to spend a lot of time actually making gift baskets.

The Newells referenced farm markets and stands frequently during their presentation, and a show of hands revealed that most of the workshop participants sold their baskets at their retail locations.

The Newells stressed basics that apply to any business. Some of the things they told their listeners were: know your costs; be sure your price covers your costs and a profit; know your customers and your markets; promote your brand with inexpensive tools like business cards; and hang tags on the baskets. Also, if you’re shipping a basket in July, don’t include a chocolate bar. Have a backup for your shrink-wrap heat gun. Keep your scissors sharp. Keep your website up to date, etc.

There was talk about ribbons — where to get them, how to make bows with them, and what colors are safe. After many inquiries and extensive research, the Newells have found there is only one ribbon color that is safe to use for all ethnic, cultural and religious persuasions. That color is royal purple.

Different colors can mean different things to different groups and the wrong color can be offensive in some circumstances. Pam Newell cited her mother’s funeral as an example. Pam is Cherokee and grew up on a reservation.

“As a Cherokee, I am not allowed to accept a gift at the time of a family death if the gift has a pastel ribbon,” she said. “When my mother passed away, we had to throw 112 items into a dumpster because they had pastel ribbons and they couldn’t be allowed into the funeral home.”

She cautioned her GBP hopefuls to be especially careful of the way they present sympathy gift baskets. And she encouraged them to look for new markets and to welcome new customers who might have unusual requirements.

The Newells’ focus was on gift baskets some years ago when a representative from a national insurance company called and asked if they could stuff coffee mugs with coffee, chocolate and tea bags. The Newells said, “Sure,” if the customer supplied the mugs and paid them $10 to buy the product and stuff the mugs.

“Okay,” said the customer. “We need 11,000 ... by next week.”

Well, that was a problem, Pam Newell acknowledged. She called her church and offered the youth group a $1 donation for every mug they filled, and the order was delivered on time.

Another large company learned about the mug deal and ordered 12,000 mugs per month, an order that went on for 13 years and earned the youth group enough donations for a trip to Israel and many other embellishments for their church and program.

The Newells take their Gift Basket School on the road frequently during the year. In April, they’ll be at the International Gift Basket Convention in Jamaica. Their own Gift Basket School annual program is in Canton, Ohio, on Sept. 6. Their website includes a link to a monthly email gift basket newsletter which has over 6,500 subscribers. That site is at

Dick Wanner can be reached at rwanner.eph<\@> or by phone at 717-419-4703.

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