I had a cyber-wish last Christmas. My sister and I were doing our annual elf routine, telephoning almost daily to report gifts we had bought for family members, thus avoiding duplication under our holiday tree.
Wouldn't it be nice, I said, to have a Web site keep a list of what everyone in our family wanted and what everyone had bought? Better yet, when someone bought a gift, the item might still appear on the recipient's wish list but become invisible to the rest of us.
On the Internet, anything you might imagine has usually been invented or is about to be soon, often by teenage millionaires. So I was not surprised when I went online in search of more efficient elves last week and found a dozen electronic Santa's helpers creating gift centers that function like high-powered, multi-store bridal registries. With the American gift industry racking up more than $200 billion a year in off-line sales, you can guess how many entrepreneurs are scurrying to claim a piece of the gift market online.
Their fledgling Web registries, with names like Wishbox.com, Ewish.com and Wishclick.com, allow people to create wish lists for almost any holiday or gift-worthy event. People can e-mail lists to friends and family. (Kind of pushy, I know, but we thought that once about wedding and baby-shower registries, too.) A few are creating "gift circles" similar to what I envisioned for families. Most are adding services such as gift recommendations, reminders, gift certificates and party planning.
Two are testing hand-held scanners that link online registries to off-line stores. Clixnmortar.com, a new company funded by shopping mall conglomerate Simon Property Group, plans to loan bar-code scanners to shoppers so they can wave them over a pair of green sneakers, say, and automatically add the shoes to their wish lists at FastFrog.com.
The registries are among a new breed of Web businesses dubbed "infomediaries" because they act as middlemen, relaying information between consumers and merchants. It remains to be seen, though, whether they will turn out to be better friends for consumers or merchants.
Much as the Internet price-comparison agents did when they debuted three years ago, gift registries seek a tricky balance between those who pay them and those who use them. Registries help consumers select gifts, but they earn their keep helping merchants acquire customers. They also give merchants an early peek at customer demand and a potentially annoying marketing tool: Imagine getting e-mails in January offering discounts on our unfulfilled wishes.
Free to consumers, most registries earn their money from Internet stores, usually a commission of 3 percent to 15 percent on each gift purchased from their wish lists. They vary in how closely they are tied to specific Internet stores and thus how easy they make it for shoppers to add products from merchants who are not partners.
You can see this in the difference between Della.com and Ivebeengood.com.
Della tightly integrates wish lists with a few well-known merchants such as Amazon (which recently bought 20 percent of Della) and Williams-Sonoma (another Della investor). The idea is not only to steer shoppers to Della's partners, but also to connect the purchasing process to Della's registry so it takes shoppers only one click to put an item on their lists. Adding items from Web sites that aren't Della partners is possible but tedious, because it requires shoppers to manually type in the entire Web address.
"We are choosing to work with the best branded retailers," says Rebecca Patton, Della's chief executive. "We think people want selection in their shopping, but they want it edited."
Ivebeengood, by contrast, encourages consumers to shop more widely. It offers software that people download and add to their Web browsers, allowing them to surf anywhere and easily add items to wish lists. "Our business model is not tied to any select group of merchants," says Ivebeengood.com founder Ravi Gururaj. "We try to give people the absolute freedom they need to shop anywhere they want."
The new registries present some thorny issues for e-tailers who maintain internal wish lists. For example, eToys lets shoppers add comments to their eToys wish lists and shop from other people's lists. The site can probably get away with maintaining a separate registry because it is the Web's top store for children, whose whimsical tastes make wish lists particularly helpful.
But as online malls and specialty stores proliferate, who wants to click from site to site checking multiple lists for the same person? For gift givers, a central list linked to many stores is more convenient. Many e-tailers are realizing this and signing partnerships to work more closely with independent registries; a few have even dismantled their own registry software.
Consumers may wonder how they can find out where friends have registered. Ewish.com thinks it has an answer--a search engine that indexes registries at 125 affiliated retailers and is adding more all the time. "We are neutral, like Switzerland," said President Jeffrey Mendelssohn.
These services are meant to simplify gift selection, squeezing out pain for consumers. But as my sister and I struggled to register at an assortment of clunky sites (most are in "beta" test mode; look for them to be friendlier next Christmas), we decided they are squeezing out little yet except the personal touch.
Holiday giving, unfortunately, has become so commercial that it often lacks intimacy--the emotional bonding that comes from taking the time to discover how to please people we care about. Electronic elves may not help here: How much discovery is required to scroll a list and click "buy"?
But the best entrepreneurs recognize this and are attempting to leave room for creativity and personal communication. Some let people send personalized gift "coupons" for gifts they deliver themselves. Wish.com encourages givers to communicate directly with receivers by e-mailing suggestions--anonymously, if they want-- and inviting detailed responses.
For all the frustration my sister and I shared as we tested registries, I knew the entrepreneurs were onto something when she looked at one list I had compiled and in a tentative voice asked, "This list is fake, right? You were just seeing if it works?"
"No," I said. "It's for real."
GIFT REGISTRY AT DELLA.COM
* User's personal wish list
* User's group wish lists
* Wish lists of other people this user has saved
* Tips that the user gives to other people
CAPTION: Della.com creates a personal page for each user, listing links to individual and group wish lists.