Help to be become a better xmas shopper
December 3, 2012 1:12 PM   Subscribe

How do I become better at buying presents? I procrastinate every xmas because I can't decide what to buy people, the biggest obstacle, I worry the recipient won't like it. Need a breakthrough, what's your super gift-buying workflow?

I am absolutely determined not to leave my xmas shopping till xmas eve like I have done for the past 10 years!
I just tried to get started by going on Amazon, and I got the same dread I always get at this time of year. Usually goes like this whether online or in-store - "Don't know what to get, they won't like that, ahhhh....wait until tomorrow then have a look"
I need to break this annoying habit but need help.
I am like this when buying for myself as well except after lots of research I'm happy with what I want and what I get. I can't do the same for others!
posted by razzman to Shopping (27 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
May not work for everyone but I do my holiday shopping year-round. As soon as I see something that someone on my list would like, I buy it immediately and set it aside. The majority of my shopping for this year has been done since before the summer.

NB this is literally the sole aspect of my life which is not procrastinated to Olympic standards.
posted by elizardbits at 1:20 PM on December 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

If I see something during a non-gift-giving time of the year for a person, I just get it. Then you just wait until the appropriate time and give the gift.

I will also directly ask people what they want for gift-giving occasions. For instance, when we all got together at Thanksgiving we were sitting around the table at one point and I asked people what they wanted for Hannukah. We all got to say things we wanted and I got some ideas. My family also is great about doing online wishlists (amazon in our case, but there are other sites that will let you do it for multiple vendors). Before a gift-giving holiday, I sometimes remind people to update their wishlist. Obviously this isn't socially acceptable in some circles.

You could also always ask metafilter for gift ideas - I've found some really excellent things via other people's askmes and I'm sure if I directly asked, I'd get amazing targeted suggestions.

(My personal procrastination is going to the post office to mail things.)

How many people do you need to get things for?

Another thing to remember: lots of people have trouble finding appropriate gifts for people. This is why there are so many stinky bath lotions and scented candles in the world.
posted by sciencegeek at 1:21 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My strategy is not to shop during the Christmas season. I mean, you're always shopping, right? Whether it's a book or electronics for yourself. Or shoes for yourself. Or fancy liquor for yourself. You shop all year long. If, while I'm shopping, I see something that reminds me of someone on my Christmas gift exchange list, I buy it and save it for Christmas. Only once have I ended up buying something in June for Gift Recipient X where they bought it for their self before Christmas.

Or basically, what everyone has said so far.
posted by crush-onastick at 1:22 PM on December 3, 2012

Doesn't help you much at this point in the year, but buy throughout the year. This can be hard to do when you see something in March and go, "John would love that--I should just buy it now and put it away....but what if I find something better later in the year?" You won't--you won't find anything better so just buy it now. If you can't bring yourself to purchase on the spot, become a master bookmarker (if shopping online) or keep a running list in your phone of stuff you see when you're out and about. I've gotten better about doing this over the years and 1) it saves me stress when the holidays finally arrive, and 2) I am more likely to get someone something they'd actually LIKE rather than something I bought in a rush.

On preview: thirding what elizardbits and sciencegeek said!
posted by lovableiago at 1:22 PM on December 3, 2012

It might be too late for you this Christmas, but try to pay attention to people throughout the year. Create a Google Doc or some sort of note that you can access from as many places as possible. Even a note in your wallet will do.

Now, whenever you're with someone that is on your "must buy gift for this person" list, and they mention anything about needing something, wanting something, or anything that gives you an idea, you write it in your note.

So, if you're with, say, your mom and she's reaching up high on a shelf, you write "Mom: step ladder" in your little note thing. If you're with your SO and she/he says "Man, I sure would love to go see some theater one of these days!" you write "SO: Theater tix." You notice your niece loves Lego bricks, it goes in the note. And so on. Do this as often as possible and be consistent about it.

Then, a month or two before Big Gift Buying Holiday, you open your note and, if you were paying attention, you have a few ideas for each person. Some of them might seem like bad ideas now, or maybe you noticed that your mom went out and bought a step ladder in September, but hopefully you have some other ideas written down.

The real key is to pay attention to people when they express a need for something.

I should add that I still have no idea what to get my wife.
posted by bondcliff at 1:22 PM on December 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

Buy gift cards.

I know, you want to buy an object that perfectly symbolizes your deep and abiding affection for the recipient.

The gift card is the perfect thing. I love them, little kids love them, everyone loves them.

I just did all of my shopping at Target and at the kiosk in my local grocery.

If you want to personalize them, write a little poem for each.

For examply, my MIL's beau loves to drive them all over Kentucky, so I got him a $50 gas card. I can write a little verse to go with it:

Here's something to fill your tank
Go to Hazzard, or the bank,
I know you love to rip and run
So here's some gas, now have some fun.

That and a 12-pack of Bud Lite (they live in a dry county) and I'm done!

Friends of ours are homebodies, they don't get a chance to get out much, so we got them Outback Steakhouse gift cards. Another 12-pack of Bud and bottle of wine, and that's covered.

I used to shop, putting together baskets, or bags of swag and at the end of the day, they didn't like any of the stuff I picked out any more than I liked what they got me.

It's cheaper to mail, and cards can be just as intimate.

For friends, we have an agreement, you don't need anything I buy you more than groceries, I don't need anything you buy me more than gas. Let's not exchange. That's AWESOME.

So now I only buy for people's kids. (Target gift cards)

That's it.

Did I mention that I'm done?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:22 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Think about how you feel when you receive gifts from people you care about. If it's not exactly right, you're not super annoyed, are you? You're probably just touched that somebody took the time to try to choose something they think you'd like. That's how your friends and family think about the gifts you give them, too. In the end, for grown-ups, it really is almost entirely the thought the counts. So concentrate on that rather than aiming for perfection.
posted by something something at 1:23 PM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Not so much a workflow but a strategy: for people I find it difficult to buy gifts for (basically anyone who has not explicitly told me what they want), I do one of two things.

1) If the person is below 15 years of age, or I am categorically one of their elders (so, nieces, nephews, etc), I purchase them a book that I liked at that age, or that seems to go with their interests.

2) If the person is 15 or older, I purchase something along the lines of a gift card, or a consumable, such as food or bubble bath.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:24 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

iconomy's gifting advice is sound.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:24 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think the most effective thing I do to prevent "don't know what to get people" is to buy little things throughout the year when they're randomly on sale ("ooh, that pasta maker reminds me of [x], who wanted to learn to make pasta"). That way, by the time Christmas rolls around, you've got things squirrelled away and there's no stress.

(Keep a list of what you get people, though. Overspending is a problem with this method. Put ideas on the list as you get them.)

Alternatively, if you'd like: ask them what they want/need. Then you can put that "lots of research" to good use to finding the best [y] there is.

(Still doesn't mean I have any idea of what to get my dad, but that is a chore in perpetuity.)

On preview, what everyone else has already said.
posted by smangosbubbles at 1:25 PM on December 3, 2012

To piggyback on bondcliff's suggestion of paying attention to what people need: one thing I did this year (since I didn't buy everything ahead of time) was go through some of my emails (I communicate with my friends and family a lot via email) and I was actually able to glean several good ideas just from comments people had made in passing (like, "Oh so and so was worrying about riding their bike at night back in July--I can get them a bike light!") Etc.
posted by lovableiago at 1:27 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm with Ruthless Bunny. Gift cards for me! Especially gift cards for non-necessary items - one year a dear friend gave me a Michael's gift card because she knew I was on a budget and couldn't splurge on crafting items.

Also, if you've put in a reasonable effort to get someone a present that they like, or gift card that they will use, and you don't make a huge misstep like buying someone with, say, nut allergies a gift box of almonds, then you've done your part. People who get picky and snitty about well-meant, not spectacularly-clueless gifts are rude, IMO. The obligation is not just on the gift giver - it's on the recipient to be gracious and grateful when you sincerely try to get someone a gift they'll like.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:28 PM on December 3, 2012

First, you are not shopping for ALL THE THINGS - you are matching your people with things they would like. Don't go shopping - go buying. Research the person, and then the thing. Do an old-fashioned list - I find that helps me to think better, and crossing things off it is a really satisfying and rewarding feeling.

You need to think of the person first, and who they are and what they do and what they like. What do they eat, or do they have any hobbies and what is their personal style? And think of it as problem-solving: What would make this person's life better? So, a chocolate-loving mug collector with retro tastes and a good sense of humour might get somechocolate gateaux tea and an Anne Taintor mug. And then research the mug that hits just the right note.

My other suggestions are to bring a shoppy friend along to a fun place to find a lot of things; or have one over for a cup of tea and some surfing. Ask a family member who can help you brainstorm. Or cultivate a relationship with a salesperson at a neighbourhood store and let them help you. You don't have to do this on your own. Find someone to help quell those anxious thoughts with cheerful reassurance.
posted by peagood at 1:37 PM on December 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

For the people that are really hard to buy for (like my Dad!) I spend a bit of time thinking about what they do with their time, and how I might contribute to that.

For example, here's how this went last Christmas with my Dad: I thought about how he's having back problems and has to wear expensive orthopedic shoes, then I thought about how frustrated he is because he couldn't golf (because of the back problems) and had gained a bit of weight, and then I thought about how he's kinda depressed and he sits around and watches TV all the time, then I thought about how fussy he is, which prevents me from getting him shirts or anything like that. I ruminated on that for a while -- I didn't want to get him consumables (because of the weight issue) or anything that would encourage him to sit more, but getting him an activity was problematic because of the back problem. Then I thought about those expensive shoes -- ah ha! I suddenly remembered the shoe trees I bought for myself a few months previously, and I figured he'd like those to keep his shoes nice (because he's fussy, and the shoes are very expensive) and it would help him focus on the active part of his life. I bought him two pairs of monogrammed shoe trees, a total luxury item. He LOVES them. He still mentions them nearly every time I talk with him on the phone.

I did the same thing with my brother (who's obsessed with a particular university's history in a not-so-popular sport, so I got him a biography of a sort-of well-known former coach from that school), my mom (who likes to drink wine, so I turned to mefi to help me find the perfect corkscrew for her). Also see this example from a previous Ask.

The point is the same one others have made -- pay attention and listen to people, and they'll either tell you what they need or want, or you'll think of something. I keep running lists of gifts for people -- what I've given them, what they might like, stuff they are into. I also keep track of what they've given me, because it's really true that sometimes people give you the things they really want themselves.
posted by OrangeDisk at 1:39 PM on December 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Try Etsy. Pick some keywords, browse the marketplace... last year, all my gifts were from merchants on Etsy, and all of them were unique and well-loved. Plus, you'll make someone's day when you buy from their shop :)
posted by eenagy at 1:45 PM on December 3, 2012

Wishlists. Period.

At the beginning of December, I go to the Amazon wishlists of the people I plan to buy for, and pick things that I can relate to as meaningfully-from-me. Check out. Wait a week. Wrap. Done.

For one or two special people in our lives, this doesn't work so well; but for those people, we probably have enough of a clue about what they like that we've tried to find the perfect thing all year long, not starting in the bottom of the ninth. :)

Protip: Plan ahead, and you can pick up birthday gifts for people at the same time.
posted by pla at 1:52 PM on December 3, 2012

Or don't buy everyone gifts! We do Secret Santa and it's THE BEST. We each get one present, this may not go over so well if everyone is not an adult, but it allows the spirit of the holidays without the commercialism and waste of getting gift you may not like.

But that's not really your question. . . when I have bought many gifts, I find the best is to go with small, quality and general, something that most people would enjoy but not necessarily buy themselves. A really nice wine bottle opener, ridiculously fancy chocolates or lotions or liquor. . . or go with the ethically conscious gift of a donation in their name to a charity of your choosing.

Then again, I suppose most people I know don't really need more stuff. YMMV
posted by abirdinthehand at 2:09 PM on December 3, 2012

Lists! Just wandering around a store or online looking for all of the presents is totally overwhelming. Make a list of your people (either electronic or paper). Jot down interests/ideas/question marks next to each one. If there's someone for whom you have a good idea, go online and buy that. Cross them off. Next!

Note: the list is just a tool. You don't have to buy something every day, but make it so you have to look at the list every day. Preferably somewhere near a calendar, so you can compare remaining workload to time till present-giving.
posted by ldthomps at 2:15 PM on December 3, 2012

Nthing shopping throughout the year. Keep your ears open when talking to friends and family; often they'll mention idly wanting something and later forget about it; then when you give it to them for Christmas, they'll be flattered that you remembered. If you're worried about getting them something they'll have already gotten or won't be able to return, just keep a list of potential gift ideas throughout the year, and then order everything at the beginning of December.

It never hurts to ask people what they want. Also: ask them what they don't want. Even people who respond with "oh, I don't really need anything" or "just surprise me" can often think of a few things they would really rather not get. Plus, people's don't-want lists remain consistent from year to year.

While you're making your list, take note of your recipients' preferences on the following four categories: scented stuff, food, alcohol, gift cards. These are four of the easiest go-to gifts (plus they're consumable, which is always good), but they also tend to be the most polarizing. People either like them or hate them/can't use them.

If you're still coming up short: do your recipients live somewhere with cold winters? If so, warm things are often a safe bet: slippers, bathrobes, sweaters, winter hats/scarves/gloves, cozy blankets. Hats get lost and slippers wear out.

Still stuck? Get a good quality Useful Thing for their home, or for travel if they're on the road a lot. Basically wherever they like to be when they're not at work. If your recipient is someone you live with, or someone whose house you often visit, keep an eye out for which room in the house seems to be their favorite, and what they've got that could use upgrading. Do they cook a lot and have worn-out old oven mitts? Do they have a pile of magazines on their coffee table or bathroom floor that might look better in a little magazine rack? And so on.

Sometimes I find good "generic" gifts - these aren't gifts without any thought put into them, but rather gifts I know almost anyone on my list would like. You can get one of these and save it for the last person on your list, or you could just get one of them for everyone.

And keep a list of stores/websites where you've found successful gifts, so you can come back to them next year for inspiration. I come back to previous gift-giving AskMes pretty often.

This may sound hyper-complicated and organized, but if you've only got a handful of people to buy for, it's mostly mental, and with practice it will come naturally.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:20 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

For people who already have lots of stuff (in my family this includes pretty much everybody except the kids), we give consumable presents, usually food. I think the key to buying food presents is to know if there are any allergies or other food preferences (like the person is in recovery, so no wine) and also to buy something of good quality. This may mean buying just one thing, or fewer things. The thing not to do IMHO is to get a pre-assembled basket with lots of small sample size things in it. Unless you know for sure the recipient likes that kind of gift.

A few food suggestions:
Wolferman's (not for the low carb person however)
Nervous Nellies (really good jam)
iGourmet (higher price point, but nice cheeses)

If you have to buy for a bunch of people, pick something that everybody likes and just give the same thing. Really, it's okay.
posted by tuesdayschild at 2:45 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I worry the recipient won't like it

It's okay if someone doesn't like your gift. If they're an adult, it really is the act of gift giving that matters the most - and you can always include a gift receipt (and you really should if you aren't sure they'll like it, especially if it's expensive). They won't hate you or be mad at you if they don't like your gift.

I do my best to buy awesome, fantastic, perfect presents. I love giving gifts, and I love it when people LOVE what I give them. But, at the end of the day, some people are really hard to buy for, so I do my best, pick out something I hope they'll like, and if they end up disliking it (or more likely, not really caring & forgetting about it), that's okay too.
posted by insectosaurus at 2:49 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're worried about them not liking it, include a gift receipt and they can return it for something they DO like, then you have gotten them a gift and don't have to worry about them not liking it. Most major retailers do them, you usually just have to ask.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:22 PM on December 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

We are huge Christmas list makers in my family, which helps enormously. Obviously, folks are welcome to buy something not on the list, but it gives everyone some easy ideas.

Gift cards are super popular-I like them because there is a gift to open Xmas morning, then I get the fun of plotting what to buy with it, prolonging the holiday fun.

For some folks, like my dad, who feel like they just don't need anything more, I'll usually get him a book or cd he wants, then donate to Kiva or the Heifer project-both are projects that my kids can understand and help pick out, so it's helpful that way too. My in laws absolutely don't need more stuff, but they spend a couple months in Honolulu every winter after Christmas, so we always get them a gift card for a restaurant near their timeshare-they love it.

Never buy someone something scented unless you're sure it's what they want. Someone in my family frequently buys Bath and Bodyworks gift baskets for all the women, and mine is always immediately returned as its not a scent that appeals to me at all.
posted by purenitrous at 3:47 PM on December 3, 2012

I have started picking one great thing and getting it for a number of people on my list. Makes life easier! Simplifying helps.

I found a local candy maker that makes these sea salt caramels that come in a decorative package. Many people on my list get a half pound or pound of these hand made confections. I show up at the candy store, fill a basket and I'm done with 80% of my shopping. I buy a few extras for people I might have forgotten and the worst thing that happens is that I have leftover caramels to eat. The candy fits in flat rate priority USPS boxes and I pop in a holiday card--done!

In past years, all my out of state relatives got a box of California oranges shipped to them.

Teens are happy to receive cash.

For kids, I've started buying books because I can never keep up with what the kids already have. Call up your local library and ask for the kids librarian. Ask them for suggestions based on the age of the kids on your list.

For families, you could get movie tickets for the family or a membership to a museum.

I always make a list and sometimes I realize that I don't need to get everyone a gift on that list.

Honestly, you know what my favorite gifts always are? Home made cookies, especially decorated ones. Edible things are always welcome gifts.

One secret I keep is that I have a space in my house for gifts. I buy year round--when I see things that I think would make nice gifts, then I just buy them and pop them in that bin for the right time.
posted by dottiechang at 4:23 PM on December 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I buy a few presents, but mostly I make them. Most of my family is happy with food presents and they really love the personal touch. So it's worth a try to make candy, cookies, or sugarplums.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:44 PM on December 3, 2012

Make a list on paper or computer.
Brother A
Brother B
Significant Other
Best Friend

Try to fill it in with ideas. Maybe Mom & Dad would like a Netflix or New Yorker subscription. You may know that your brother likes to buy music - gift cert. to iTunes or Amazon.

Instead of a perfect gift, just try to pick a gift that the person would enjoy. Your Christmas gift is a symbol of loving/liking the person, and wanting to show some love once a year. If your Mom likes wine, a nice bottle of wine. If Dad loves food, several jars of different mustards. My nephews like tshirts, so I just went to Threadless and bought their gifts. It's nice if the gift item is a bit higher quality than the recipient would get for themselves; that makes it a treat for them. If Mom and/or Dad don't have a digital camera or smartphone, that's a nice gift, and even a not terribly expensive digital camera can be pretty good.

If you spend time with the recipient and notice something they lack, that's an opportunity. Dad might like a camera for the pc, to skype with Uncle Whosit. Mom might like a good set of headphones. Most people read, listen to music, watch movies, and/or play games. Browse a good bookstore, or find out if there's a new album by Mom's favorite a cappella group.

Get some gift tags now, and write a nice note with each gift. Dad, I hope you'll enjoy another book on Jefferson. It reminded me of that trip we took to Monticello. Merry Christmas, love, Razzman Mom, thanks for always making Christmas so much fun, etc. It means a lot to people.
posted by theora55 at 9:20 PM on December 3, 2012

My trick is to start brainstorming with the four Bs: Books, Blooms, Booze, Baked goods. There's something for nearly everyone in each of those categories. And I heartily second the advice not to get too hung up on whether or not the recipient loves the gift. Every once in a while you hit it out of the park, but base hits are still useful.

My workflow involves a spreadsheet listing all the good little boys and girls, with a tab for each year. I keep track of what I buy, making a note if it was particularly well received; I also store future ideas here. I email myself notes throughout the year when I uncover useful information about someone: collects elephants, reads sci-fi, likes a particular obscure candy, etc. [Use a searchable keyword like "xmas" so you can find these emails later.]

This is one of my favorite topics.
posted by Jane Austen at 12:08 AM on December 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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