It’s that time of year when I’m reminded of a job I once had as a gift wrapper. Here are some things it taught me:
1. If you do something a 1000 times, you can get really, really good at it.
2. Owning a task from beginning to end is satisfying.
3. A wide range of quality can differentiate the technologically narrowest of services or products: a garment’s hem, a cut of steak, a physical exam, ice cream, shoes, or soap.
4. Personally knowing and satisfying a customer feels good.
5. Satisfying demanding customers with the most exacting standards is the most personally rewarding.
On point 5, I had a number of “Miss Ann” customers. For the record, “Miss Ann” is an historical American referent for a certain generally privileged and empowered female with exacting standards. One partly serious and partly comical definition offers this:
Miss Ann – a noun. 1. A woman of European descent who runs a household which employs female workers of African descent to perform tasks such as cooking, cleaning, ironing etc. 2. Usage as in “I gotta go clean Miss Ann’s house” or “She think she a Miss Ann”. The phrase arose from when slave house workers were allowed to call the women for whom they worked by their first name, but only if preceded by “Miss”. Greatly insinuated in the definition have always been the inherent bad consequences of not meeting Miss Ann’s standards.
Miss Ann can also be an adjective, as in that shawl or those pearls “are Miss Ann”, i.e., something so impeccably crafted as to be fit for liking by a Miss Ann.
Today the phrase simply means any woman (and it usually is a female though not always) with terribly exacting standards for whom only the best will do, lest there be consequences. Besides Maria Callas above here are some famous Miss Anns:
The consequences of not satisfying Miss Ann were nicely caught in the movie “The Addams Family Values” where the Miss Ann character, the Nanny, had wanted a Ballerina Barbie for Christmas as a child:
Her parents made the grave error of giving her instead, Malibu Barbie, whereupon little Miss Ann
(a) had a fit,
and (b) blew up the house:
Entertainingly, the gift wrapping customers themselves were the ones who invoked the Miss Ann phrase as a referent for their desired tier of giftwrapping service. They would say, “This is for my son—it doesn’t matter how you wrap it. But this, this is for Miss Ann, so…”.
“Miss Ann” became a key signaling mechanism for the customer’s desire for a truly premium wrap. I found I was really tailored for these customers: I was a perfectionist and had the task down to a conscious science:
- Quality is in the details; not the gross. You can’t put high heels on a pig, and a bad wrap isn’t forgiven by any beautiful bow.
- Know your papers. Those high in cotton content wrap differently from more synthetic ones. Different papers have different plasticities and can be pulled beyond tearing thresholds of other papers to line up designs and make a seamless wrap—as if laying carpet—and you need to sometimes: the longer the paper, i.e., greater surface area of the gift, the higher the probability that the lines at both ends of the wrapped gift won’t line up due to whatever paper inking error + box asymmetry + any original box-paper alignment error.
- No air should be in the paper when done. The paper should mimic paint on the box, and be pulled as close to the tearing threshold as possible without tearing.
- A special place in hell is reserved for any professional wrapper who would even think of using anything besides double-sided tape—adhesives should never be seen.
- Waxed papers wrap fabulously. Use any excuse to wrap with them when the customer allows.
- The folded ends of any wrap should have the crispness, symmetry and flatness of a business envelope.
- Formal bows should have at least 8 leafs and one inset bow.
- All 12 edges of any box must be completely pressed.
Understand the customer: many people are—no pun intended—wrapped up in their gifts. It’s an extension of their own personal brands:
—when they can’t attend the wedding but want to have their gifts delivered to the wedding party, they must make a statement in their absence;
—when a man is arranging a gift for table-side delivery at a restaurant, it must make a statement;
—when someone just got named judge, is meeting in-laws to be, is gifting a sable coat—these presentations can not be made shabbily. They can’t even be average. Their appearance must ritualize and respect the grandness of the occasion itself and signify the priorities, conscientiousness, resources and social prowess of the gift giver.
A gift begins at the point of its presentation, not of its opening. It must speak before it’s ever seen.
Quick example: A Miss Ann couple once left me with the following instructions: “This (about 5 large boxes) is for my best friend. He’s getting married. It has to be good–I mean we want something ridiculous. It has to get everybody’s attention. And can you do like a really big red bow?”
I wrapped each of his gifts in a fabulous black and white fine grain houndstooth paper that mimicked a man’s suit pattern; it was sufficiently masculine, capturing a male friendship bond, but sharply elegant and formal to invoke something beyond that. It changed out the predictable pearly I-am-wedding-paper wrap for something individual, celebratory and edgy. I took a cue from the customers themselves as they were “beautiful people” with a splash of “Hollywood.” I stacked the gifts into a roughly 4-foot tall pyramid and finished it with wide brilliant red satin ribbon in two directions. I hand made two 8-leafed oversized bows, whose four tails cascaded down the sides of the pyramid and in the center attached a red asymmetrical accent ornamental artwork.
When they returned the customers’ expression when they saw the finished wrap was priceless: their jaws actually dropped. It was eyepopping. They left in full swagger.
Details matter. This is what Miss Ann knows and continuously teaches the world:
- Ballerina Barbie.
- Rib eye, cut from ribs 1-4, please.
- Mezzo soprano.
- 1200 thread count.
Miss Ann knows what she wants, and she particulary knows what she does not want.
So here’s why I love her:
- She’s why there are any brands at all. She embodies the opportunity of differentiation and is the reason you get to break out and do something special.
- She’s a great metric: if you can satisfy Miss Ann, be excited. You can satisfy anybody.
- She has a good memory, she’s influential and she talks. I won’t have to market a lot; she’ll do it for me, and better than I could, because she’ll send me customers exactly like her.