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THE BASKET LADY Finksburg shop fills the orders for any occasion


That little pig-shaped basket may look like a planter to you.

But to Rose DiFonzo, owner of Executive Expressions in Finksburg, it's a Harley Hog just waiting to be stuffed with Harley-Davidson paraphernalia, candy and other goodies for the motorcycle enthusiast.

From house-shaped baskets for real estate agents, to pink and blue baskets for new mothers, to chocolate-lovers' baskets filled with treats, Ms. DiFonzo has been creating individualized gift baskets for about 10 years.

"This was a great way to use my creativity," said Ms. DiFonzo, pointing to the baskets and silk flower arrangements decorating her tiny showroom in the Finksburg warehouse from which she also runs her retail basket business, Mayberry Sales Inc.

"I also get to meet people, and I'm always the bearer of good tidings," she said.

The business, which is featured in a state Department of Economic and Employment Development brochure about Maryland gift basket companies, grew naturally from the retail basket shops she had in Carroll County and West Virginia.

But as the market changed, Ms. DiFonzo realized that a demand existed for pre-assembled gift baskets.

"People kept calling and I kept saying, 'We don't do that,' " she said. "After someone called for the 20th time, I told my secretary, 'Now we do that.' "

Ms. DiFonzo's work has been featured in a display of nine Maryland businesses at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Her basket of Maryland products such as Old Bay seasonings, towels and note pads with crabs, and small Maryland flags occupied the central spot in the display last year.

"Usually, [an item] is on display for one month," Ms. DiFonzo said of the $35 basket.

"But they liked mine so much they kept it all summer."

Not all her baskets are done in wicker containers. For as little as $7 an item, Ms. DiFonzo will fill anything from promotional mugs to index card files with candy or small gifts.

For example, her Italian dinner basket contains a tablecloth, pasta and sauces in a metal colander. Prices are based upon the container and how much the contents cost, she said.

"People are busy and have less time to shop for the perfect gift," said Ms. DiFonzo.

"It's easier to buy a gift where you tell someone what you want to spend and the person's individual tastes. You can pick it up and take it with out any hassle."

Many of her customers are corporations that want to thank a client for its business, to attract new ones or to leave a hotel gift for company travelers.

"The client has to trust you are going to represent them in a way that they can be proud of and not embarrassed," Ms. DiFonzo said.

"When the [gift recipient] calls and says thank you for the wonderful gift, they want it to be not because they are being polite, but sincere."

Businesses will soon be giving her their holiday gift-giving lists, Ms. DiFonzo said.

"They usually tell me what they want to spend," she said. "I like to start from that point and then I can give them the best possible value for their money."

Bereavement baskets -- baskets sent to the home in lieu of flowers -- are also becoming popular gifts, Ms. DiFonzo said.

"These are really coming into their own," she said of the baskets she fills with snacks and a book of inspirational verses.

Ms. DiFonzo said she particularly likes to make "happy baskets," ones that make people feel good.

"When I come into an office to deliver a basket, everyone in the room's eyes light up," she said. "They are overwhelmed.

"What other business can you be in that's such a feel-good business?"

Basketeers -- businesses that assemble gift baskets -- are one of the top 10 growth industries in the United States, Ms. DiFonzo said.

According to the most recent issue of GBR magazine, an industry publication for basketeers, the gift basket industry grew 80 percent and created about 18,000 new jobs in 1992.

Approximately 38,000 people create gift baskets in companies that employ an average of 1.8 people, the magazine said.

Nationwide, each company averages about $120,000 per year in business, GBR reported.

The industry is dominated by women, many of whom begin working out of their homes, Ms. DiFonzo said.

"Unfortunately, they don't all do it well," she said.

So, the Mayberry resident gives classes to show fellow gift basket makers how to stuff a container with goodies and dress it up for show.

"I get a real thrill out of showing someone how to make a bow," Ms. DiFonzo said.

"I don't feel any competition. There's enough room for everybody."

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