Best of the Web

Last winter Lisa Skriloff found herself in the middle of New York City's Chinatown with 50 ornamental ceramic tea mugs and no way to carry them all home. As the president of Multicultural Marketing Resources Inc., Skriloff is sometimes called on to help her customers shop for holiday gifts. One of those customers, Kang & Lee Advertising Inc., needed help in buying gifts for its Chinese and Vietnamese clients.

This year, instead of shivering on a corner waiting for a car service to pick her up, Skriloff plans to do her holiday shopping online. She has bookmarked, where she says she'll scout out tasteful gifts for the Chinese New Year, which begins on January 24. While she's impressed with RedEnvelope's selection of corporate gifts, she's even more taken with its signature red gift boxes.

To celebrate the new year, the Chinese and Vietnamese give money to children in -- by sheer coincidence -- red envelopes. In China, the present is called hong bao, "a lucky gift for the new year," says Skriloff. Typically, the red envelope is used for cash, but Skriloff says she thinks Kang & Lee's Asian American clients will appreciate a gift in a red package as a statement of cross-cultural appreciation.

Whether or not CEOs confront the particulars of the Chinese New Year, most encounter the difficult decision of what to get customers and colleagues for the holidays. A new batch of Web sites want to help take the pain out of corporate holiday shopping. The sites vary widely in merchandise, from, which carries upscale gifts such as spa packages and luxury-car rentals, to Corporate Gifts Network, which offers conventional gift baskets filled with fruit, wine, or smoked meats.

But how do you make sure you're not giving your customers the corporate equivalent of the dreaded fruitcake? The first step is to make sure you start at the right site. Just as you wouldn't shop at Wal-Mart for trinkets to charm that million-dollar customer, you wouldn't want to buy gifts at the wrong site, either.

To evaluate these sites we asked 10 entrepreneurs to visit them and order corporate gifts with price tags of $50 or less. Our panelists purchased everything from food baskets, cookies, and tea to a cigar gift set, a silver gift box, and a paperweight. Their reactions to the sites and to the gifts ran the gamut. Mick Scully, CEO of Appian Communications Inc., bought his chief financial officer, Gregg Savage, a miniature putting green at RedEnvelope. Scully says it was the perfect gift since Savage had recently put down his number-seven iron to take a full-time job with the start-up. "Within a matter of days he had it set up in his office," says Scully. "Now we're thinking of starting an office tournament."

In contrast, Jeff Patterson, president of Gaggle Inc., found his wine-and-cheese basket from Corporate Gifts Network disappointing. "The basket arrived with dipping pretzels but nothing to dip them in," he says.

Our panelists gave the highest marks to RedEnvelope,, and, while they waxed less enthusiastic about Corporate Gifts Network, Godfrey & Alexander Inc., and Gift selection and customer service separated the winners from the losers. RedEnvelope tied with for overall best grades. Panelists enjoyed RedEnvelope's innovative gift selection, live-chat customer service, and prompt delivery. At they discovered some upscale gifts, such as a weekend Jaguar rental, and reported excellent customer service, although the panelists thought that some of the merchandise was overpriced.'s text-heavy site didn't appeal to one reviewer, but another gave it good marks for its content, which features gift-giving advice.

Corporate Gifts Network, Godfrey & Alexander, and suffered from lackluster selection and iffy customer service, according to the panelists. One reviewer referred to the gift selection at Corporate Gifts Network as "gift-basket hell." A paperweight that another panelist ordered from arrived broken (although the company later replaced it). And one CEO called Godfrey & Alexander twice before he got to talk with a customer-service rep, who then told him the company couldn't meet his request.

Overall, the reviewers said they'd return to three out of the six sites. And most panelists, like Lisa Skriloff, said they'd appreciate the convenience of ordering multiple gifts from one site and staying out of the crowded shops this holiday season.
What it offers: Apparel, books, sports and theater tickets, flowers, and food and wine. Most expensive item: Ducane Stainless Steel BBQ, $3,947. Least expensive item: shark stapler, $8. Most unusual item: sheet of 32 uncut $1 bills from the U.S. Treasury, $50.

What it's good for: Gift-selection advice, one-on-one shopping assistance, and advice from a resident etiquette expert. Gifts are sorted into different collections so that CEOs can easily buy for salespeople, assistants, customers, or top performers.

Don't waste your time if: You're hyperconcerned about security. One CEO repeatedly got the "insecure" message after entering all her credit-card information, so she ultimately abandoned her shopping cart.

What our panel had to say: One reviewer found Bravanta to be a good one-stop source for a variety of gift ideas and appreciated the gift-protocol advice for people from different countries. Others found the home page littered with too many options.
What it offers: Collectibles, consumer electronics, and gourmet-food baskets. Most expensive item: Philips flat-screen television, $11,000. Least expensive item: picture frame, $12. Most unusual item: Woodbury Pewter Fire Chief's Megaphone (doubles as a candleholder), $225.

What it's good for: Designing and running an online corporate-incentive program. The site also features a "solutions library," which has articles about how CEOs like Richard Branson reward their employees.

Don't waste your time if: You're in a hurry. This site involves visitors in a lengthy process of creating a corporate account -- which can take up to 24 hours -- before they can browse the site or purchase most items.

What our panel had to say: Most of the reviewers found it too difficult to get into the site because of the lengthy sign-up procedure. Some found its customer service lacking; one CEO never got a response to her inquiry. Another had trouble registering, and when she E-mailed customer service, she received a complicated reply. Her response? "A busy CEO has no time to fool with all this," she said, and she never registered. (Godfrey & Alexander Inc.)
What it offers: Clothing, blankets, electronics, and chocolate. Most expensive item: Italian leather-bound scrapbook, $400. Least expensive item: one-color logo pens, 69¢ each for 300 or 49¢ each for 1,000. Most unusual item: chocolate business card, $2.45 each for 500.

What it's good for: Gifts for sales meetings and trade shows or when quantity and pricing are more important than selection or quality.

Don't waste your time if: You want to buy only one item. There's a minimum-order number of 25 or more.

What our panel had to say: Although there was a range of prices on merchandise at this site, panelists found the gifts geared toward "mass-distribution trinkets" and "anonymous giveaways." One panelist commented that the site "looks and feels cheap." (Corporate Gifts Network)
What it offers: Gift baskets, sports items, and gourmet foods. Most expensive item: Opus One Wine Basket with chocolates, $474.95. Least expensive item: Smokehouse Sampler, $29.95. Most unusual item: personalized Daytona 500 scoreboard print, $34.95.

What it's good for: Affordability. A fair number of gifts cost less than $50.

Don't waste your time if: You want anything other than gift baskets, because with few exceptions that's all she wrote.

What our panel had to say: One panelist said Corporate Gifts Network is just "an expensive version of Hickory Farms." All the panelists commented on the poor selection, with one saying the items were "boring." One CEO got lost in the ordering process and left the site in frustration. Another said it took 10 days for his basket to arrive, and he found the shipping charges excessive.
What it offers: Executive toys, gourmet-food baskets, and sports and leisure gifts. Most expensive item: wine "captain" for storing wine, $1,100. Least expensive item: Cat and Dog Keepsake Journals, $12.95. Most unusual item: shot-glass chess set (drink while you play), $250.

What it's good for: Great customer service with live chat, quick E-mail response to questions, and an order-tracking feature.

Don't waste your time if: You don't want to pay for that signature red box. RedEnvelope charges $4.50 for its gift packaging.

What our panel had to say: One reviewer really liked the site's "great toys." While the panelists agreed that the site stands out in visual sophistication and customer service, one thought it took too many clicks to perform a transaction.
What it offers: Fine spirits and foods, gift baskets, cigars, flowers, crystal, baby gifts, jewelry, and golf lessons. Most expensive item: a one-week Lamborghini rental, $15,000. Least expensive item: Morning Tea Collection, $35. Most relaxing item: a day at Thibiant Beverly Hills Day Spa, $349.

What it's good for: Presentation. The packaging is beautiful, and the site uses artful photographs to let customers preview how some gifts will look as they're being opened.

Don't waste your time if: You're on a budget. Some panelists found the site overpriced, and one even remarked that a $39 gift of four cigars "probably sells for $20 at a local store."

What our panel had to say: Some reviewers found merely browsing this site enjoyable; one panelist said she spent an hour taking in the innovative gifts. But two reviewers complained about limited selection, and one was disappointed there was no jewelry for men other than watches.

Rachael King is a freelance writer based in Hoboken, N.J.

The Savvy CEO's Guide to Corporate Shopping

Would CEOs go back? CEOs' quick take Mostly, yes. "Very well-thought-out and effectively designed site." "Has potential but needs redesign." No. "Too hard to get in and look around." "Very poor design, architecture, and customer service."
(Godfrey & Alexander)
No. "Couldn't find anything that I'd want to receive personally." "Fine for ordering premium items in bulk with a company's logo."
(Corporate Gifts Network)
No. "Gift-basket hell." "Expensive version of Hickory Farms." Yes. "Well-thought-out, upscale experience." "Great for finding that perfect item for any occasion." Mostly, yes. "Best for that special client." "Higher-quality, mildly overpriced merchandise."
Ease of Navigation Selection Content Customer Service Reliability Pricing Total B B A- B+ B+ A- B+ D D+ C C C C- C-
(Godfrey & Alexander)
A- C- C D B- A C+
(Corporate Gifts Network)
B- C+ C C B A- C+ A- A- A- A+ A B+ A- A C+ A A+ A+ B- A-

Our Panelists

Mary Coombs, CEO, Coombs Media
Turodrique Fuad, cofounder and CEO, Papermedia
Laura Herring, president and CEO, the IMPACT Group
Jeff Patterson, president, Gaggle Inc.
Lise Ragan, president and CEO, Course Crafters Inc.
Mick Scully, cofounder and CEO, Appian Communications Inc.
Ji Shen, chairman and CEO, Aegisoft Corp.
Lisa Skriloff, president and founder, Multicultural Marketing Resources Inc.
Brad Wills, president and COO, Wills & Associates Inc.
Brian Young, president and CEO, Thor Technologies Inc.

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