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Ribbons, bows, and baskets turn gift giving into a business

THE juggling of career and home took a bright turn when two new moms met -- and promptly went into business together. Their friendship clicked at the outset, and in no time their gifts-in-a-basket business was, if not booming, at least making a solid start.

When they first met, Lila Coleburn was a doctoral student in psychology, and British-born Harriet Joynes was on the staff at the New Zealand consulate. Both had just given birth to daughters and each bemoaned the fact that they were so busy they weren't fulfilling their own gift-giving obligations. From those comments, their gift service was born.

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Without prior business training, they formed a partnership to open ``The Ultimate Basket,'' a gift service they hoped would solve the very dilemma they had described to each other. They reasoned that there must be thousands of other working women who, like themselves, had cash to spend on presents but little time to personally shop for, wrap, and deliver the gifts. Their business, based in Manhattan, is in its third year.

The partners agree that a key factor in their success is living close to work and to the nursery school and day-care center that their daughters attend. Not to mention husbands who are willing to baby-sit and lend support.

Early in 1984 the two women rented space high up in an old hotel and began to search out unusual baskets from all over the country. They established contact with the same wholesale resources that sell to stores, boutiques, and specialty shops. They also arranged to have many things made or crafted exclusively for them, set their minimum price at $25, and amid a welter of ribbons, bows, tissue paper, and assorted gift items began to seek customers for their gift delivery service.

They custom-tailored many gift baskets to clients' wishes and put together catalog basket combinations with names like the Ultimate Baby, the Ultimate Bath, the Gifted Gardener, and the Children's Travel Kit. True to expectations, they found plenty of people who were looking for help with their gift giving, not only for new babies, but for thank-yous, housewarmings, anniversaries, job promotions, and the like.

``The challenge to us,'' Lila remarks, ``was to keep coming up with something special for the prices we quoted. It kept us on our toes searching out the best books to include and all kinds of gourmet delicacies and little luxuries that people might never buy for themselves, such as exquisite chocolate truffles, small antique picture frames, lovely linens, English flower note cards, fancy scented soaps, and silk flowers.''

``We both have a very strong sense of what works and what doesn't,'' says Harriet, ``and we believe that when people send gifts it is more than the thought that counts. The gift has to be appropriate and convey a certain tone and quality. We exercise as much taste and judgment as possible in helping make sure that it does.''

Having tripled their volume of business in 1985 over the previous year, the partners are now aiming for that large-volume corporate business that enables them to produce and deliver several hundred of one combination of gifts. ``Corporate customers rely on us to decide what the gift should be, how much it should cost, and to see that it represents them well,'' explains Harriet. Their staff now includes two full-time and two half-time assistants and a batch of students who are hired when needed.

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Both partners spoke at the 1985 ``Women in Business'' forum sponsored by American Woman's Economic Development Inc., a nonprofit corporation, and Harriet Joynes will participate again at AWED's all-day forum on Feb. 22 for women interested in going into some phase of the fashion, beauty, fitness, food, or home fashions business. (Information about place and fee can be obtained from the AWED office at 160 East 42nd Street in New York; telephone 212-692-9100.)

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