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The Boston Phoenix Gimme That!

The online wish list sounds like a great new idea. But if it catches on, you may never get a birthday surprise again.

By Michelle Chihara

MARCH 28, 2000:  Being good at choosing gifts is a bit like being good in bed: it's a nice talent to have, but it's probably a bad sign if you consider yourself too much of a pro. And, like sex, it's an area where Americans worry about their performance.

"There's a lot of anxiety," says Frederic Brunel, a BU professor who studies gift giving and commerce. "And men experience even more apprehension."

To help Americans get over that anxiety, a host of new Internet companies have been popping up to assist us in being generous in just the right way. Gift giving is a huge business -- overall, Americans spend somewhere between $100 billion and $150 billion on gifts every year -- so the rewards for finding the right fix can be big.

One popular antidote to gift-giving anxiety is the virtual shopping agent -- a site that offers live advice or recommendations from databases, like an automated version of the personal shoppers at expensive department stores. Another solution, though, is more intriguing: the wish list, a modernized, all-purpose cousin of the wedding registry. Every major retailer, from online-only Amazon.com to online newcomer Wal-Mart, now allows users to create wish lists -- helpful lists of coveted goods for friends and family to consult whenever they need to buy you a gift.

"Some of the potential of these sites, as they become more and more sophisticated, is that they should take away the mistakes," Brunel says. "You'll avoid buying the wrong thing, which is one of the major problems that we have with gifts. [The Internet] is going to take that away."

What the Internet might also take away, however, by reducing gift giving to simply checking off items on a list, is the meaning behind the gifts we give. And in most cases, that meaning is the whole point.

The need for shopping guidance is as old as department stores. Macy's has had personal shoppers since 1935. Wedding registries may date to as far back as the 1870s. Over the years, the registry has grown from a way to keep new couples from receiving more knives than forks into a multibillion-dollar affair: last year, wedding registries, online and off, did $17 billion worth of business.

Most of that business goes to the usual suspects: stores such as Crate & Barrel, Macy's, and Tiffany, which sell a lot of china, silver, and housewares. But these days the rules are changing. Couples often live together before marrying; they may prefer a $300 tent for two to $300 worth of dishes. As a result, wedding registries have expanded into all corners of the retail world -- Home Depot, REI -- and the registry has gradually evolved into a grown-up version of a letter to Santa, detailing all the things a couple can possibly imagine wanting to own.

In the past few years, the registry business has moved well beyond weddings. "We do housewarmings, anniversaries, bar and bat mitzvahs, same-sex weddings," says Crate & Barrel spokesperson Betty Kahn. "We've even had people register for a natural disaster: some people I know, they got burned out of their home when Oakland had the big fire a couple of years ago. Their daughter and their friends wanted to help them out. So they registered at Crate & Barrel."

But it's the online world where the rules are being most flagrantly rewritten. Internet gift registries, with their ability to link person to person and store to store, are pushing the limits of our sense of when and how it's appropriate to tell people what you want. In October 1998, the Internet research firm Jupiter Communications called gift registries the "the next e-commerce killer application," and since then almost every major retailer has added an online registry service. Sites devoted entirely to registries, such as Wish.com and IveBeenGood.com, scrambled to get online for the 1999 holiday season, when consumers spent upward of $9 billion online.

Analysts say the hottest of these companies right now is Della.com, a San Francisco-based start-up backed by one of the most prestigious venture-capital firms in Silicon Valley. Business Week named Della.com its company to watch last holiday season.

Della.com launched in June 1999 as a bridal registry and quickly grew more ambitious. "A general gift registry was just a very natural expansion for us," says spokesperson Lindsay Loudon. Della.com trumpeted the importance of its services with a press release last December: "New Survey Shows That More Than 40% of Consumers Will Return Christmas Gifts This Holiday Season!" Based on a poll of 1000 adults, Della.com found that 73 percent of Americans fear giving bad gifts and feel it's worse to give a bad gift than to receive one.

Della.com's solution is to provide links to a menu of 17 brand-name retailers, including Neiman Marcus, the Gap, Banana Republic, REI, and Restoration Hardware. "Online shopping has its obvious benefits," says Loudon. "You save time, and you don't have to bear the pain of shopping with all those people around. We take the solution to another step: we aggregate all these name-brand retailers in one spot. Shopping online is somewhat risky -- you don't touch or hold the things you buy. If it's a big name, a trusted name -- like Banana Republic, Gap, Fog Dog, REI, the names people trust -- people are more likely to feel comfortable."

With Della.com, you can create a Web page that will tell people you want the Gap suede jean jacket, size small, $168, in light purple; the $275 Swiss Army officer's watch with large black dial from Fog Dog; and the Restoration Hardware dragonfly door knocker in solid brass with a bronze patina finish for $79.

Della.com has grown from a company of nine to one with more than 100 employees, and it has spawned dozens of competitors with names such as eWish, WishClick, uGive, and, of course, WishList.com. One competitor, eCircles, just launched a Japanese version of its site. An Internet World columnist last month was speaking only partially tongue-in-cheek when he wrote that "wish lists rule the planet."

As the whiz-bang new technology of the past holiday season, wish lists are hot with e-commerce consultants. But they have hit a couple of snags on their path to world domination. This radical upgrade of the Christmas list may have been a "natural expansion" for Della.com, but it's not clear that it's natural for the rest of us.

Cynthia Lacey, a 45-year-old Boston financial-services contractor, registered a wish list on Della.com as part of a contest, but hasn't been able to tell anyone about it. "I'm old-fashioned enough to listen to Miss Manners and think that you don't send out a wish list," she says, "unless it's to somebody who specifically asked for ideas."

Della.com knows about this resistance. "There's a stigma attached to wish lists," Loudon admits. "Some of the stuff written says that it kills the fun of gift giving, etc."

It also kills some of the unspoken etiquette of gift giving. Even in situations where we are obligated to give gifts to one another, the underlying message is that we're giving because we've thought personally and unselfishly of others. Sure, it can be hard to buy the right thing, but offering givers grocery lists of what we want pretty much negates any possibility of transcending the trading-post mentality. And once we're old enough to buy things for ourselves, asking strikes most of us as rather greedy.

Also, people like surprises. "Some of the most positive gift-giving experiences we've studied," says BU's Brunel, "are instances where people are really surprised -- where they couldn't have thought of it themselves, where they could see that this person went out of their way to really think about who I am, about what would make me feel good. A great gift tends to say to the recipient, 'I am giving you this because I understand who you are.' The receiver thinks, 'Wow, this person knows me even better than I know myself.' In the context of a registry, that's going to go away. You already asked for it."

Of course, when there's money to be made, someone's bound to find a way around these problems. Della.com, for instance, brings back some of the social niceties by allowing users to create "gift profiles" where they list general information about themselves: their favorite type of book, their pants size. This, presumably, helps the gift giver get to know the recipient while diminishing the blatant "gimme" factor.

A competitor, eCircles, claims to be three times as successful as Della.com with its registries (although, like Della.com, the company won't release specific sales figures). Instead of just listing their attributes, users create online groups, or "circles," of their friends and family members: pages where they can send each other e-mail, post messages, and share calendars and wish lists. Users can choose from a pull-down menu of retailers or list the URLs of other stores they like.

eCircles, in other words, hopes to soften the potential awkwardness of registries by automating not just the "gimme" part, but also the entire community and family dynamic surrounding it. Standing alone, wish lists seem greedy, but put in context, they're just part of the online conversation.

"Here's where you come to see new baby pictures," says Nazila Alasti, vice-president of marketing for eCircles, "and here's what she wants for the newborn. It's not just 'Come see what Nazila wants for her birthday.'"

This might still strike some folks as relatively presumptuous, but it doesn't seem to bother one group of consumers: kids.

"So far, teens have not shown that they have any hesitation about sending out a list to friends and family stating their preferences," says Bob Sacco, vice-president of marketing for Digital Connection, an Internet consulting firm that owns SecretWish.com, a wish-list site for teens. (SecretWish.com advertises itself with the tag line "Tired of getting gifts that suck? Clue in the clueless!") Della.com has a division called "Della Kidz," and other companies, such as ICanBuy and KidsWish.com, cater primarily to children.

"I think young consumers who've grown up with the Internet and who chat with friends all day and are starting to meet spouses online, they've internalized the Internet," says Carrie Johnson, e-commerce analyst for Forrester Research. "Adults send e-mail greetings, but for important occasions they still send a regular card. But young consumers don't; when they grow up, they might use the Internet in a way that we would consider tacky. Five years out, probably, the next generation might move more toward the Della.com model."

So if online registries are, in fact, the future of gift giving, it may be because the next generation will just never grow up enough to consider them presumptuous.

Retailers smell gold in what analysts have called an untapped gift market online, but their cashing in could have unanticipated social consquences. Gift-giving rituals are not as formalized in America as in, say, Asia, where people follow elaborate, symbolic protocols. But gifts are still an important part of how we connect with each other. Altering the way we go about choosing them means altering a fundamental part of a significant process, even if that process is kind of messy and stressful.

As things stand, gift giving does lend a certain structure to our lives. According to market research cited in the New Yorker, Americans tend to turn to one consummate shopper in their lives -- a shopping "maven" -- for all their purchasing advice. Shopping mavens are usually women, and when it comes to gift shopping, the clearinghouse for information is usually one specific woman: Mom.

"Many families exhibit a consumer behavior where they have a central person who kind of collects ideas of what everybody wants for Christmas," Loudon says. Her company intends to automate that process: "My brother will tell my mother what he wants, and then ask what I want, and we put this online. Everybody can make a wish list, and there's a password to get into that gift exchange. Everybody in the family can access that, and there's no longer a middleman."

But one doesn't have to be a momma's boy to see that this particular "middleman" might add something to the process that a wish list doesn't. "You risk losing the intimacy, the nuances of your mother," says Harvard anthropology professor James Watson, who teaches a course about cultural rituals.

But, he says, "How many of us are able to consult with our mothers, who might be living, well, in my case, in Iowa? People are busy now. They don't have time to dwell upon this."

People also like accuracy, says Johnson at Forrester Research. "Mom," she says, "also doesn't know that you want the J. Crew sweater in medium in chartreuse."

Put the gift-choosing process online, and you make the process undeniably more efficient. The only question, it seems, is whether interpersonal relationships are best managed like business endeavors -- whether efficiency is a family value.

"Gift giving is a central human activity," as Brunel puts it. "It's an activity that we engage in as part of maintaining and strengthening the relationships that we have with others. That's the structural explanation of giving -- it's for strengthening the relationship and taking it to a new level. Gift giving strengthens and celebrates our relationships."

In other words, the process of worrying about what to buy someone else is also a process of thinking hard about someone else, of examining and working on a relationship with that person. It's stressful, but who knows what we'll lose if we cut this particular stress out of our lives? We may often get it "wrong," but serendipitous gifts can also surface from the struggle.

An example: a friend of mine once received a crochet-covered brick for Christmas from her grandmother. It was meant to serve as a doorstop. When she first picked up the package from under the tree, she said, "What'd you get me, Grandma -- a brick?"

That story went down in family lore. In the years since, the crochet-covered brick -- and its story -- have been carted from TV room to dorm room to studio apartment. The brick has become a part of my friend's life. It's a quirky thing to have, even rather funny. And it represents an investment of Grandma's time and effort.

Of course, had Grandma known that my friend wanted a J. Crew sweater in medium in chartreuse, then that's just what my friend would have received. She would be one very correct J. Crew sweater richer. And she would be one not-so-stylish but oh-so-personal brick poorer.

Still a few bugs in the system

As an alternative to wish lists, some of the top gift Web sites offer free personalized advice. It works like this: you provide information about your friend/relative/co-worker, and the site -- via either a live person or a database -- generates sure-fire gift suggestions.

After putting the top sites (according to Internet research firm Gomez) to the test, I found that the collective wisdom of thousands of dollars of marketing research on men and women of all ages can be summed up succinctly: bath salts and golf.

At each site, I asked for gift ideas for two friends: one an analytical male who works in an office, the other a brassy female who's engaged. I also asked for a few Mother's Day gift ideas. (Most of the time, the gift suggestions for the engaged woman and Mom were the same.)

Della.com's personal shoppers, who boast that they've found gifts for Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford, recommended I buy my engaged friend Elizabeth Arden Green Tea Tub Rub, a pewter jewelry box, and bath salts. At Bravo.com I logged on to a live chat with a "gift concierge." The first thing that Concierge 3 typed was "Have you looked at our selection of spa products?"

For my male friend, the concierge suggested an "eMap," a hand-held GPS device that gives you a map of wherever you are, anywhere on the planet. Very handy at a mere $244. Della.com's shoppers suggested grilling tools, classic movies, and . . . a spa gift certificate.

Two other sites, Perfect Present Picker and gifts24.com, take a range of personal information and plug it into a database. Both sites, curiously, recommended Kama Sutra kits and bath salts for her, and gizmos or golf items for him. (Perfect Present Picker's merchandisers are a little wackier than gifts24's: the site suggested Crazy Billiard Balls and the Golf Voodoo Doll.)

Surprisingly, when I tried to get creative and gave Perfect Present Picker entirely different specifics on a woman who was not engaged and was mad at the giver, it gave me the same results: Crazy Billiard Balls, Golf Voodoo Doll, plus one more item: something called "Cow Pie in a Box."

At least it wasn't bath salts.

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