holiday business gifts can be a perilous, expensive and time-consuming process. These difficulties are amplified for small-business owners, who are eager to make a good impression but are usually short on money and time. But giving gifts is extremely important, especially if you have been too busy to thank your customers and clients for their patronage throughout the year.

To avoid the last-minute rush, start by ordering catalogs for products you like. If you prefer, visit the companies' Web sites and bookmark pages with potential gifts for future reference.

Set aside a day right after Halloween to order your holiday gifts. If possible, recruit a staff member or hire a temp to help you complete your one-day gift selection and ordering marathon.

Get ready by making a list of recipients and updating their mailing addresses. Don't forget to give gifts to support staff, helpful delivery people, building supers or anyone else who deserves appreciation. Anticipate the unexpected. You might want to choose a few "floating" gifts to have on hand in case you suddenly need a gift for someone you hadn't thought of sooner.

Order gift wrapping and holiday cards on this day, too. Many companies offer "early bird" discounts that can save you hundreds of dollars. Buy tape, ribbon and gold or silver metallic pens for signing cards. Even if you have your cards imprinted, sign them personally. And, no matter what you give for the holidays, make sure it is beautifully wrapped.

"A great presentation sparks excitement at first sight and builds anticipation for what's to come," said John Petterson, spokesman for Tiffany and Co. in New York, a company world renowned for its elegant signature turquoise boxes.

"I firmly believe that when a person receives a business relationship gift, there is the same level of anticipation and excitement upon receiving the package as there is with a personal gift," he said.

While it's tempting to order everything with your logo printed on it, Petterson warns that items with a company logo often have a lower perceived value. But, he acknowledges that for many small businesses, a gift with a company logo is an affordable, year-round marketing tool.

For your best clients and customers, consider customizing gifts with engraving or embossing. Tiffany reports that this is a growing trend that helps make the recipient feel special. But remember: Engraving and embossing take extra time, so planning ahead is crucial.

Brand it for yourself

There are lots of companies that can customize products for your business, and one of the best we found is www.branders.com. Branders has an easy-to-navigate Web site and a full array of merchandise, from leather briefcases to steel travel mugs. Best of all, by using its Web site, you can design the product with your logo on it yourself, adjusting the color, size, position and adding text if you desire. They also offer a variety of choices for how to apply your name or logo to a product, from silk-screen to hot foil-stamping, or embossing, depending on the material.

Branders and other custom-merchandise manufacturers base discounts on volume, but at levels that can work for the small business. You can order a dozen leather folios, or 50 holiday CDs, with your own logo and message. Best of all, buying in bulk this way streamlines your shopping. But make sure key people don't feel neglected by one-size-fits-all gifts. Your spouse probably won't be thrilled with a company travel mug, no matter how supportive he or she is!

Another great site for branded holiday gifts is www.ipromoteu.com. Although you can select and order gifts on its easy-to-navigate Web site, it has real people on duty to answer questions and provide personal assistance.

Gift experts at Tiffany and Co. report a strong trend toward global-giving as businesses, even small ones, do more business overseas. If you have any international contacts, make sure you research gift-giving protocols in their country. For example, in India, the cow is sacred and any item made of leather is considered offensive. In Japan, a knife is seen as a symbol of severing a relationship (probably not the message you'd mean to send).

Although many big online toy companies failed to deliver toys on time last Christmas, don't give up on online shopping for business gifts. Sites, including Amazon.com, are powering up to help make online shopping effortless.

Both Amazon and WishClick.com plan to launch services this holiday season that will allow gift-givers to e-mail their recipients, asking that they fill out profiles and choose favored items.

New age of gift giving

If you think business gifts must always be pen sets and paperweights, think again. There are lots of fun gift ideas that can be appropriate for business gift giving at the holidays.

Another good choice is Philosophy's Miracle Worker gift set ($42.50), an array of seven face and hair care products packaged in a hip steel case, though the product names can be a little hokey "It's All in Your Head" shampoo and "Time on Your Hands" hand cream are two (www.philosophy.com). My favorite spa gift of all, for the dog owners on your list, is Origins' "Top Dog!" kit, including shampoo, coat detangler and a dog treat packaged in a cool steel dog bowl. For just $25, it's a real howl.

For the absolute last-minute, no-muss and no-fuss gifts, consider online currency and gift certificates. Flooz.com is an entire Web site designed for this purpose, and it's very easy to use. You buy the Flooz, the recipient gets an e-mail and they choose their gift from a selection of partner stores including Martha Stewart, Godiva, Barnes & Noble, Philosophy and others. Some, or all, of the Flooz you give can be given to the charity of a person's choice through its Web site connection to charitableway.com.

Jane Applegate is the author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business," and is founder of ApplegateWay.com, a multimedia Web site for busy entrepreneurs. She can be reached via e-mail at jane@janeapplegate.com.

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