On my holiday shopping list are nine little kids to whom I am somehow related. Then there are my sisters, brothers, sisters-in-law, brothers-in-law--a dozen in all, and only some covered by "secret Santa" pacts.
Since it would be wrong to give everyone either a Harry Potter book or a sweater, I could use a few ideas. No surprise: The Internet promises to help.
For this holiday season, just about every major portal site has added a gift-suggestion feature. So have many specialized retailers, both the Net-only ones and the electronic outposts of regular stores. There are also services set up to do nothing but suggest gifts--and sell them, of course.
All promise to pick just the right thing, but the quality of the suggestions varies wildly. In some cases, it feels as if the sites are set up solely to push merchandise from participating advertisers. But in others, the suggestions seem better than anything I could ever come up with myself.
Sites that specialize in gift suggestions are the most interactive. At Gifts.com (www.gifts.com), the gift finder narrows down searches by any mix of interest, relationship, occasion and price. Perfect Present Picker (www.presentpicker.com) has even more categories, including personality, occupation and lifestyle.
Mixing the categories can lead to mysterious results. I asked Perfect Present Picker what to get for Christmas for a female, age 30-46, with a small-town lifestyle, an executive job, an analytical personality and an interest in angels. At the top of the list of suggestions: a "Secret Sauce Server," a $15.95 white serving piece with the words "secret sauce" painted on it. I switched her lifestyle to big city, and the top suggestion became a $399 digital note pad, followed by a $130 glass paperweight. Not an angel in the bunch, and I figured that was a gimme.
At Gifts.com, there aren't nearly as many choices, so I tried asking for suggestions for a sister (sister-in-law was not an option) with an interest in collectibles for whom I was willing to spend between $50 and $99. Three products matched: Italian cameo jewelry ($79.95), Raggedy Ann and Andy glass ornaments ($79.95), and something called a "Globetrotters Porcelain Bibelot Box Set" ($99.95). Switch her interests to entertaining and gadgets, and the nine suggestions were topped by an $89.95 candle.
Other sites aren't nearly as interactive, but their picks sometimes seem a lot better--especially when it comes to shopping for the kids. Both Amazon.com (www.amazon.com) and eToys (www.etoys.com) sort their recommended lists by either age or interests. Blessedly, neither splits toy suggestions by the sex of the child, so you're not forced into a choice between Barbie and a dump truck.
Toys R Us (www.toysrus.com) does, however, offer that option: The list for 6-year-old girls was topped by Tori, one of Barbie's relatives, while Hot Wheels cars dominated the list for 6-year-old boys. (I would have explored the site more, but I could only get on once in three days of repeated trying.)
EToys offers many different best-of lists: For a 6-year-old, you can look at bestsellers, 50 favorites, fantastic finds, 20 under $20 or award winners. Topping the list of favorites is not anything Pokemon-related, but a Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine ($9.99).
Finally, the big do-everything portals have also added gift suggestions, but these are often the least useful of the bunch.
Yahoo's site (shopping.yahoo.com/gr/), for instance, divides children's gift lists only by sex and age categories--infant, toddler, child or teen. For both male and female children, the classic book "The Velveteen Rabbit" topped the list, costing anywhere from $1.50 (for a used paperback) to $14.95. For an adult female family member's birthday--holiday gifts, for some reason, are not an option--a gardening book topped the list.
The Excite portal's gift zone (shopping.excite.com/mini_shops/gift_zone/) offers lists that sometimes feel as if they were put together by a wealthy but none-too-sophisticated teenager. For Dad, a shower head, humidor, CD organizer or shaver; for Mom, flowers or jewelry from QVC, plus that shower head.
Microsoft's gift finder (eshop.msn.com) has some less embarrassing ideas, but you can't search by recipient. Instead, you pick from various categories of merchandise--"Chic Shop" for clothing and "Gadget-eria" for electronics. "Kids Central" promises shopping by age group, but I couldn't find it. Under "whiz kids," though, I found a selection of children's software--none by Microsoft, but all sold at the (still unreachable) Toys R Us site.