It may be Harry and David's offerings, the riches of Hammacher Schlemmer, L.L. Bean for the outdoorsy look, the cheeses from Swiss Colony, and even Frederick's of Hollywood if you dare. In America, more often than not, it's Christmas by catalogue.
In 1976, according to the Direct Mail Marketing Association, 10,000 mail-order companies did $27 billion.
Hammacher Schlemmer claim that they will fill any request.
"There was a man in India who wanted a particular stud horse and we got it for him," President Dominic Tampone said, "and there is a woman living in Europe who has has rat poison shipped to her every week at a cost of around $9 for the can and $12 to $15 to ship by plane."
This is the sixth year H and S has advertised a "Revolving upsy-downsy Animal Fair all your own," selling for $4,950. "We sold about 50," said Tampone. "Grandparents can't resist it."
An item called "The Love Tester. Right out of he Penny Arcade, the Mauve Decade" sells for $3,500, stands over 6 feet, will tell whether you are Hot Stuff or . . . "We haven't sold any of these, but people come into the store and like to work it," Tampone said.
One year, for the fun of it, they found Londo taxis, 10 years old with mileage under 2,000, and sold 40 of them. Other items for the Android who has everything were cordless telephones going for $1,595 and Italian bathtubs for $4,000.
At L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine, the Christmas season starts in October and gets into a wild tempo as the cutoff date for sending gifts near.
The company employs 750 ful-time people and hires about 500 more to handle the 8,000 to 10,000 orders a day coming in-without the aid of a toll-free number. "The biggest seller is still our hunting boots," said Lee Bois from Bean, "and the chamois shirt is next.
"At the beginning of December a $24,600 order was being put together for the Royal Riding Academy of Iran that was interfering with the Christmas orders.
"The people in the order rooms have unusual things go by them but they are so swamped they wouldn't realize anything different."
Someone remembered an order from a man in New York for eight to 10 scarlet one-piece union suits. Another man called and wanted 25 Christmas catalogues as gifts for his employes. L.L. Bean sent them.Then there was the family from Alaska who were on their way to a wedding in Wisconsin and felt they were so near to L.L. Bean (Alaska mileage) that they just had to drop by to see the place.
The trip cost them so much that all they could do was circle the items they wanted in the catalogue and wait for them to be sent.
Kurt Schwager, an executive with Swiss Colony in Munroe, Wis., remembered a woman sending the same gifts to four men working with her in a big office, all signed, "I Love You."
Munroe is a community of 10,000 people whose population grows during the Christmas rush that starts in September. "We have 600 permanent employees," Schwager said. "During the season we increase the staff to 2,200 and move most of the operation to nearby Madison to fill the 4 million gift orders at Christmas."
One woman called to say that she sent a gift to her aunt in California and that she had received it by mistake. "We checked the files," said Schwager, "and found that her aunt had sent her the same gift."
It takes five weeks, but the baking of gingerbread houses starts in July and is handled by seven men imported from Europe who are expert in this line.
"A lot of the same people come back to work every season," Schwager said. "They work shoulder to shoulder, packed in. Music plays, and we work three shifts around the clock."
Spread out over 25 acres in Medford Ore., in the Rogue River Valley is the home of Harry and David, and Jackson and Perkins Co.-two of the largest, best-known direct marketing firms in the country.
Employing 675 persons full-time, and up to 2,200 at the peak shipping season, the company packs and ships over 1 1/2 million food and fruit gifts each year.
They were once known as "Harry and David's Fruit-of-the-Month" and their Christmas catalogue now carries items like baklava, cheesecake, crockery, nuts, pineapple cake, chocolates, petit fours and plants that include a "giant amaryllis."
Jane Foster, copy and media director for the company, recalled an incident when a card was sent to a future gift recipient saying, "An amaryhills is on the way."
The woman panicked and called saying, "I don't want an armadillo."
The company is proud of its customer service departments.
It was just before Christmas last year when a man called saying he was an old customer and wanted desperately to send a friend a goat for Christmas.
The employe called her supervisor and was told to see what she could do.
She knew a man who raised goats, made a call, arranged the transportation and the man's freind got a goat for Christmas.
Quality contol is important and quite often an executive will get into the assembly line and check out the packages.
The other day a senior vice president rolled up his sleeves and pitched in. When he reached the end of the assembly line he found his favorite gold watch was packed, sealed and off to a customer. Correspondence went out to all the recipients of gifts that day with a request that the watch be returned.
Maybe the boss won't have to worry because the batting average of missing jewelry being returned by customers has been 1,000 so far.
"What was never returned," said Sue Lichtenwalder of the media department, "was the lunch a worker lost one morning. But no attempt was made to track it down."