Screw The Mall: How To Super-Charge Your Lame Gift-Giving With Digital Tools

I am, historically speaking, not the best gift-giver. I like to think that I don't drop the ball entirely, but I'm not one of these people who naturally and instinctively knows exactly what someone would love and where to get it. The trickiest part? Coming up with unique gift ideas, especially for people I don't see on a regular basis. 

This year, things are different. Instead of stressing over the holiday gift exchange, I'm actually very much looking forward to doling out the things I've bought. And not once have I stepped anywhere near a shopping mall. It's not that I'm any more thoughtful or creative of a person than I was a few years ago. It's that the Internet is making gift-giving a hell of a lot easier. 

Last weekend, I carved out a few hours to dedicate exclusively to shopping for Christmas gifts.

I didn't leave the house.

Instead, I fired up my Web browser, opened a Google spreadsheet and started surfing. With a mix of curated gift guides and social media-fueled intelligence, I came up with a pretty solid list of gifts within a reasonable budget. The clock is ticking, but if you're looking for last-minute inspiration, my formula might work for you too. 

1. Build A Spreadsheet

Using Excel, Google Docs or your choice of spreadsheet program, create a spreadsheet. This will serve as a central repository for gift ideas, budgeting and tracking. I prefer to use something Web-based so I can access it from my phone or any other device. 

Your gift idea spreadsheet should have the following columns: Person, Gift, Price, Where, Bought? and Misc. Notes. These columns will list, respectively, who it's for, what it is, how much it costs, where to find it, whether or not you bought it yet (designated by a bold, capital X) and any miscellaneous notes worth keeping. If there a multiple gift ideas for a single person, they should each get their own line item to keep things organized and cleanly-budgeted.

At the bottom of the Price column, add a SUM function so you can add everything up and keep track of your overall budget. 

2.  Preliminary Brainstorm

There are some people you know so well that it couldn't be more obvious what to get them for the holidays. Others either drop unmissable hints or simply hand you a list. For everybody else, you need to brainstorm. 

Fortunately, there's no shortage of websites and apps that you can go to for inspiration. This year, I spent some serious time with a handful. Fab, The Fancy, Uncrate, Etsy and the Cool Hunting gift guide iPad app are all loaded with random ideas, which can typically be broken down by price, category and gender. And those sites are just the beginning. 

Scrolling through endless grids of handmade housewares, gadgets, foodie paraphernalia and winter fashions can put you in a trance. But it's a goldmine of inspiration, if you can stay focused long enough (remember, this list is for them, not you).

There are also countless publisher-curated gift guides for specific types of people. Virtually every site and magazine in tarnation publishes these things. Do you have a nerdy brother? Technophobic mother? Fashionable pets? There's a gift guide for every odd combination of adjectives and people (or animals, apparently) in your life. Just Google around, adding the words "gift guide" to each search. You might want to include "2012" as well so you don't get outdated results. 

As you come across ideas, keep track of them in your spreadsheet, dropping a link in for each one. That way if you come across something better later on, you're free to choose.

3. Gather Social Intelligence

It never hurts to ask a mutual acquaintance or another family member, but if you want to appear more thoughtful than you actually are, there's another option: social media stalking. 

If the person happens to be active on Pinterest, congratulations. You'll almost certainly find a great gift idea there, sometimes with a direct link to the purchase page. If not, browsing their pins can give you general clues about what they might like. Are they posting a lot of cupcake recipes? Maybe some cool baking gadget would work. Are their pinboards peppered with pictures of The Beatles? The band's entire remastered catalog was just reissued on vinyl. Pinterest has general gift suggestions of its own, although there's no personalized, social intelligence behind them. 

Of course, most people aren't glued to Pinterest all day long. They're on Facebook. Scroll through their list of "Likes" to get a better idea of what sort of things they, well, like. You can then plug some of those things into Etsy for unique, handmade gifts you couldn't find in any mall on the planet. Or try a broader search on Google Shopping or Amazon. 

Speaking of Amazon, the company realizes how powerful all that Facebook data is, so it recently launched a new feature to make all of this a bit easier. The Friends and Family Gifting portal lets you connect your Facebook account to Amazon, which then allows the ecommerce behemoth to mine your friends' interests and give you gift recommendations for them. The suggestions are little obvious: My friend Kyle told Facebook he likes the book Catch 22, so Amazon thinks I should buy him a copy. He probably already has one. But it's still worth scrolling through Amazon's recommendations for ideas. Even better, if the person has a wish list on Amazon, you can browse it from here. 

Facebook has its own Gifts feature, which lets you send people physical gifts, but they're pretty generic and not personalized. 

4. Still Stumped? Try Photos

If all else fails, everybody loves photos. We're taking more pictures than ever before, but most of them are languishing on a smartphone or Facebook album somewhere. Fortunately, there are a bajillion services for turning Instagram images and other digital photos into everything from refrigerator magnets to gigantic canvas-based prints. You can get photos printed on wood, glass or aluminum. Oh, and paper. A whole book of it, even. 

Spend some time with their Facebook or Instagram photos, dragging the best ones to your desktop as you spot them.  There's no shortage of photo printing services. 

  • CanvasPop prints photos directly onto canvas. 
  • Fracture specializes in printing photos on glass. 
  • StickyGram turns Instagram images into magnets. 
  • Artflakes makes Instagram stickers. 
  • PostalPix lets your order high-quality paper or aluminum prints directly from your phone. 
  • Printsagram does Instagram prints, memory boxes, calendars, stickers, posters and mini-books. 
  • Or there are tried-and-true general photo-printing services like Shutterfly and SnapFish

Note: If you're still not finished your holiday shopping for 2012, the shipping deadline for most of these photo sites has passed. So you might be looking at a visit to Kinko's or Walgreen's.

5. Buy Things 

Let's face it. Buying things online tends to be more efficient and often cheaper. You also don't have to deal with the madness of holiday crowds. That said, some items might be sold out online, past the shipping window for Christmas, or otherwise require a visit to an actual bricks and mortar store. Personally, I'm staying away from malls and big box shops for those local, in-person purchases. That's just me. 

If you are ordering online, today and tomorrow are pretty much the last days you can place those orders and still expect them to arrive before December 25 without paying a big overnight shipping premium. You're already cutting it awfully close, though. 

As you make purchases - whether online or in person - be sure to add an X to the "Bought?" column of your gift-tracking spreadsheet, which is hopefully accessible from your smartphone. 

Even if you do most of your shopping in person, using digital tools and doing online research can dramatically simplify the whole experience, leading to fewer bouts of last-minute mall fatigue and better gift ideas. 

Those of us who suck at giving holiday gifts are officially out of excuses. 

 

Lead photo by asenat29