published Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Gifting 3.0: With no surprise, is the gift magic dead?

Shoppers lug their bags as they start their holiday shopping. While gift registries abound, online and off — along with old-fashioned list-making that you just turn over to mom or Santa — a couple of new websites are looking to bring back the surprise while also pleasing the picky.
Shoppers lug their bags as they start their holiday shopping. While gift registries abound, online and off — along with old-fashioned list-making that you just turn over to mom or Santa — a couple of new websites are looking to bring back the surprise while also pleasing the picky.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Count Cynthia Gibson among gift recipients not interested in being surprised.

“Most of the time it’s a disappointment, and I’m one of those people who don’t hide their emotions very well,” says Gibson, in Los Angeles. “The best gift is getting what you want.”

Natalie Caine begs to differ. She has a holiday ritual with some women friends: They do a surprise giveaway of something they have at home and want to pass on. Life is busy enough, she says, without having to hunt down your own gifts.

And besides, what about the magic?

“We already have too many to do lists,” says Caine, a fellow Angeleno. “Let’s enjoy bringing out our creative surprise giver and take a chance it is well received.”

Welcome to gifting 3.0, when we can — and do — make our own dreams come true with a click or a list or a trip to the mall. That sounds just fine to Gibson.

“A lot of people regift,” she says. “If they didn’t like it, what makes them think that I would like it?” And gift cards? Pffft. “That’s for the truly lazy.”

While gift registries, online and off, abound, along with old-fashioned list-making that you just turn over to mom or Santa, a couple of new websites are looking to bring back the surprise while also pleasing the picky, like Gibson.

According to the 2009 book “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays,” by economist Joel Waldfogel, buying gifts is a lousy allocation of resources due to the ignorance of givers about the true preferences of their giftees. He estimated that about $12 billion a year in the U.S. and $25 billion a year worldwide is misallocated on giving at the holidays.

That is one reason Jessica Jessup decided to co-found Giftovus.com in San Diego, Calif. At Giftovus, a recipient puts together a list that loved ones can pluck from, if desired, while talking things over on a group page without the giftee seeing their activity.

So, for example, if a gift recipient lists “bike,” her group can drill down together, picking each other’s brains on color and style, Jessup says.

“A lot of other sites are focused on just pulling off of a list,” she says. “We found among our own experiences and talking to other people there’s definitely a group that wants to contribute their own ideas and personal touches to a gift. When people get back to that surprise, they realize what they’ve missed.”

At CheckedTwice.com, giftees can create groups and share lists in one place. It allows for “secret gifts” to be added to lists by anybody in the group, hidden from the view of the list-maker but visible to everybody else. There’s a comment area as well.

“You still get the thrill of surprise when you rip into the wrapping paper,” says co-founder Andrew Swick, who recalled a particularly vexing Christmas for one loved one in 2002.

That’s when his sister and site co-founder, Rebecca, unwrapped three identical volumes of Robert Frost poems she had coveted. The sentiment was in the right place — and then some.

“She had emailed out a wish list of ideas that people could get her,” he says. “Then she came up with this idea. It was really designed to organize and stop that duplicate gift problem without ruining the surprise.”

Attorney Dave Howard in Round Rock, Texas, uses the site with his wife, daughter, his daughter’s boyfriend and his 22-year-old granddaughter. For years they kept their lists on a piece of paper, stuck to the refrigerator. It was inefficient as family members grew and flew the coop and led sometimes to duplicate gifts.

“Now, we can share our ideas of surprise gifts with one another,” he says. “They can’t see the things that are secret.”

Group registries are ready made for Christmas, when so much buying and so many lists are in play, Swick says from Houston. At his site, which has a Pinterest-like interface, you can also add a gift suggestion to a person’s list and let them see it.

In stealth mode, however, “It’s almost like I’m pasting something to the person’s Facebook wall that they can’t see but everyone else can,” Swick explained. “We make it a bit more collaborative.”

The site, which was built out last year, has about 25,000 users, while Jessup’s site got off the ground in earnest a couple of months ago and had not yet hit 1,000 users.

Busy people benefit greatly. “Some people want to give personal gifts that are also a surprise and get down to the perfect gift without having to ask the receiver,” Jessup says.

Gibson is single but has a big family — nieces, nephews, eight aunts and uncles and 18 cousins included. Well-meaning gifts, she says, often wind up in the back of a closet. But her heart isn’t entirely hard.

“I’m still warmed by the gifters’ attempts to give me something,” she says. “I’m a softie like that.”

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