"Help, I'm suffocating in the skintight jeans you bought me for Christmas!"

You may desire to avoid such a faux pas, so here are two hints to aid you in your online gift search for clothing:

1. Before shopping for a man's gift, sneak a peek at the label on his best-fitting pants and write down the size.

2. For a woman, don't bother. Because women's sizes are wacky and unstandardized, forget about buying pants, shoes or oxfords for the ladies--especially online, where you have to pay to ship it back.

Consider taking your friend, husband or wife on an online "scouting" shopping trip, so you can observe the browsing and take notes. Look for a store that does more than list what's in stock at what price--for instance, Lands' End (www. landsend . com) allows you to shop simultaneously with other people, provides an online model that allows women to "try on" outfits and offers men an oxford-shirt finder.

More Web retailers are offering gift certificates, wish-list services and reminder services. They're also willing to dish out gift ideas, with varying results. I liked the simple approach to gift buying at Eddie Bauer (www.eddiebauer.com). Enter information about the recipient, event, type of item and price range, and out pops a long list that includes the standard sweaters and such--along with extra duds.

With the holidays approaching, online stores are starting to offer free standard shipping. The Gap (www.gap.com) not only ships orders totaling more than $100 for free but will also send you a $10 eToys gift certificate if you spend $75 at its GapKids or BabyGap stores.

Be warned that shipping dates vary by retailer. At Lands' End, standard shipping means within four days, but at Delias.com (www.delias.com), an Internet shop for teenagers, you may wait for up to 10 days.

Although things have improved, online retailers have not perfected the science of selling in cyberspace. Early last week, the Gap's site mislabeled photos for its men's gifts, so it was hard to tell what was there. At Nordstrom's site (www.nordstrom.com), the small print made me squint and the retailer didn't always list prices next to the photos. Likewise, Lands' End's gift section forces you to click a second time to see the prices for wooden puzzles, backgammon games, leather journals and other items.

Nordstrom is savvy enough to suggest that gift buyers pick up accessories, such as microfiber body packs, pashmina scarves and nylon diaper bags--all one-size-fits-all items. That's because the retailer wants your return business, but not your returns.