- Your holiday shopping has never been easier: you sit down at the PC and log onto Amazon.com. You pull up your brother's wish list, select an item (who knew he wanted Pearl Harbour on DVD?) and send it right to his door.
Next, you log onto FindGift.com to find out what your mom hopes for. Flannel pajamas from The Gap? A few clicks, and they're on the way. You never know what your sister wants -- except this year. At Yahoo Shopping, you click to order the new camera she wants.
Twenty minutes and you're done -- no mall-stomping, gift-wrapping, or sentimental feelings necessary. If this sounds a little too easy, you're right. But this vision of holiday shopping of the future could be coming soon.
Online gift registries and wish lists are available all over the internet, but so far, few surfers actually use them. About 25% of all web surfers have any experience with online registries, and only 8% have ever made a purchase from one, according to a recent study by Jupiter Media Metrix.
So what's the problem?
It's two-fold, says Jupiter Analyst Rob Leathern: Many surfers don't know that these services exist, and those who do often hesitate to create a detailed list of what they'd like their friends and family to buy for them.
"There's no accepted social practice for telling people to buy you gifts," Leathern says. "Most of the services let you send an email once you have a list, but for some people, well, that's just too weird." But that doesn't mean the future of these sites is bleak, he says.
Two kinds of online registries are the most common: sites dedicated to building wish lists, and retail sites that offer a gift registry feature.
Many real-world retailers with websites let you compile a wish list of their merchandise. Macys and Crate and Barrel are two examples of bricks and mortar retailers that offer such an online service.
One of the biggest problems with these types of registries is the lack of integration with their physical counterparts. Many shoppers want to research items online, but buy them in person, Leathern says, and are frustrated when they can't access the online registry from the store.
The other option is a website that lets you build a wish list. These often let you compile a list from other online stores, but they may charge a fee, or may limit your selections to their merchandise partners. FindGift.com and SwagBag.com are examples, and Yahoo Shopping and MSN EShop also offer gift registries.
Bob Zakrzewski founded FindGift.com four and a half years ago, and says the idea for the company, originally called RegistryOnline, came from his wife. "She used to send out notes to my family telling them what we wanted for Christmas. The first time, my parents thought it was a little strange, but then they realised that it made their shopping so much easier."
FindGift is an umbrella registry, Zakrzewski says, and does not limit a user's selections. That means items people choose may be available online or not. Zakrewski's own wish list, for example, includes old copies of Sports Illustrated magazine, which he collects. His friends may not be able to find them at Amazon.com, but they'll know to look for them in used bookstores and other shops.
Other services are trying more original ways to help people get the gifts they were hoping for. PickYourPresent.com lets the giver designate an amount and then sends the recipient a catalog of items in that price range, allowing them to choose whatever they want. The service doesn't divulge money matters to the recipient.
WishListExpress.com offers a similar service: It lets you send an anonymous e-mail to a friend asking them to fill out a wish list. Getting your friend to respond to an anonymous e-mail may not be easy, but it's one way to find out what they're hoping for this holiday season.
So, if these lists are so practical and convenient, why aren't more people using them?
Leathern calls that a "chicken and egg problem." To get more users, registries need people to visit and use the service in the first place. One of the best ways to do that, he says, is to offer a more centralized service.
"Most people aren't going to search through 25 sites to see if their friend has a wish list somewhere," he says.
He is optimistic. "Registries have worked well for weddings because there is a clear need. Right now that need isn't as obvious for general occasions, holidays and birthdays. But that perception can be changed."
Maybe not in time for this holiday season, though.