Face it, shopaholics -- the Internet drains much of the fun out of holiday shopping and replaces it with ice-cold efficiency. Who wouldn't rather stroll through Neiman Marcus or Best Buy with their best buddy than sit solo in front of a computer, eyeballing page after page of tiny pictures showing what you could reach out and touch at real malls?
Busy, savvy people, that's who. They realize the Internet magnifies shopping prowess, helping them discover and buy gifts they might never run across if they relied solely on their feet and telephone -- and in a fraction of the time it takes to shop the traditional way.
This seems to grow more true each year as Internet retailers figure out what online shoppers really want and add features to help, such as top-10 lists of hot sellers, gift picks by category, product ratings and reviews, and filters that let shoppers sort products by price, ingredients, colors and other factors.
I tested many Internet shopping time-savers and gift-idea generators to prepare this online holiday shopping guide. I was surprised at how much easier it is to find and order unusual, foreign, cheap or luxury products online today than it was three or four years ago.
In no time, I stumbled across a $15 pair of Cozi moccasin slippers my sister might like as a stocking stuffer at Zappos.com, a vast Web shoe store. Those I found by drilling down to the women's slippers page and clicking on the "popularity" button; up popped the fleece-lined Cozis as the top seller. Another gift idea I found might appeal to my teenage nephew -- a one-year subscription to GameFly.com, which provides video game rentals the same way Netflix rents movies, by mail. The site lets subscribers keep one game at a time for $14 a month or two for $22.
For my stepmother, I eyeballed trendy leather bags at LushBags.com, wondering if she'd like the $229 multicolor Speedy carryall co-created by Louis Vuitton and Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami. I resisted the bag, though, along with the temptation to send my embittered Democratic pals "W 2004" square buttons available at a discount (for $1.75) from the George W. Bush Store (www.georgewbushstore.com). Equally tempting and equally resistible was the urge to send GOP pals a $3 "The Right Choice for America" button from the Kerrygear (www.kerrygear.com) site.
Other finds were the $30 print of the Redskins stadium scoreboard, or the $80 Redskins jersey, both with any name you submit appearing on them, available from NFL.com. Even more fun were framed, $60 caricature prints you can create of loved ones from any photo you upload at Personalcreations.com. You could get fancier with the same idea at Photowow.com, which will create pop art from any photo starting at $75.
I had fun with eBay's new "holiday gift wizard," which locates gifts for sale on the auction super site ranging from popular gadgets to memorabilia about someone's hometown, namesake or hero. You tell the wizard if your recipient is a man, woman, boy or girl; pick from 10 descriptive categories such as collector, sports fan or gadget guru; then answer one of four questions that pop up, and it will return an illustrated list of items for sale on eBay.
For my father I chose the "impossible to shop for" category, then answered a question about his last name and wound up chuckling at many of the 7,014 items with "Walker" in their auction titles, including various "Walker, Texas Ranger" items I am still mulling over since he has roots in Texas. I was intrigued, too, when I searched on behalf of my best friend, another "impossible to shop for" person. I answered the question about her hometown rather than last name, and up came 551 items about Washington, D.C. , including a signed photo of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, an antique milk bottle from Fairfax Farms on First Street NW, and many original antique maps.
The auction site also offers a list of 67 new products being sold only on eBay through Dec. 15 (www.ebay.com/exclusives), such as a limited edition "aqua pet" named Kazu that floats in a small water chamber and is billed as an "interactive" companion.
I still find Internet shopping overwhelming and less fun that window-shopping with friends, but it's hard to ignore the ability to get so much accomplished so quickly -- without the hassle of standing in holiday cash register lines that will only grow worse starting today.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.