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The year Jeff Bezos & I exchanged holiday gifts

Posted by Scott Kirsner  December 14, 2011 04:12 PM

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I wanted to dig this story out of the archives, from November of 2001. The idea of online wish lists was still relatively new, and for this Globe feature, I got in touch with Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and used his site's wish list feature to swap gifts with him. (I got him a folding canvas camping chair, as I recall.) Bezos offered some advice on proper wish list etiquette.

[ Some updates... Swagbag.com, the Reading start-up mentioned, no longer exists. Tom Hopcroft is now head of the Massachusetts Tech Leadership Council. I think LLBean.com still doesn't have a wish list feature. And obviously, many more sites have launched wish lists features in the decade since this was written. ]

Making a List: For some, online gift registries take the mystery — and misery — out of holiday gift-giving

By Scott Kirsner

As the holidays approach, it seems the world subdivides into four categories.

Among gift-givers, there are the Michelangelos of the Mall, who view the act of shopping for friends and family as an act of creativity and personal expression, and the Uninspired Laggards, who have a hard time picking out presents for anyone on their lists and generally put off the chore until the last minute.

Among gift recipients, there are Bad Actors and Oscar Contenders. Bad Actors have a hard time exclaiming convincingly over the wonderfulness of the festive plaid vest they have just unwrapped. Oscar Contenders can make you believe they were on the verge of pawning a kidney for just such a vest.

A relatively new feature of many e-commerce sites, the wish list or online gift registry, proposes to vastly improve this time of year for the Uninspired Laggards and Bad Actors. Since I fall squarely into both categories, I decided to experiment with wish lists and registries on various Web sites.

A wish list and online registry are essentially synonymous. Both let visitors to an e-commerce site tag the items they'd like to receive as gifts and then save that list on the Web site, so that gift-givers can later find it and, ideally, purchase items from it. In most cases, gifts can either be shipped directly to the recipient or sent to the buyer for wrapping and in-person delivery.

For e-commerce sites, wish lists have the potential to increase revenues since they're a mechanism by which a loyal customer can ask his friends and family to buy him gifts from a specific store. They also have the potential to decrease returns, since people are presumably less likely to be unhappy with gifts they've picked out themselves.

No one expects wish lists to be a major force behind holiday e-commerce purchases this year, which Forrester Research predicts will total $11 billion, a 10 percent increase over 2000. Only about a quarter of online shoppers have ever had experience with a wish list, according to the research firm Jupiter Media Metrix, and just 8 percent of online buyers have ever purchased gifts from one. Still, many analysts and online retailers expect usage of wish lists and registries to grow over time - and they're already a real convenience for many gift-buyers and recipients. I began my experiment in early November by creating lists on a few different sites, including Amazon.com, CrateandBarrel.com, and Swagbag.com, a Reading-based site that lets you select merchandise from anywhere on the Web. (Most wish lists limit the wisher to items that are sold by a single site.) Creating lists is fun; it's the digital equivalent of going through a catalog and circling the things you want with a red pen.

I was careful to avoid adding items to my list that might be perceived as odd. For example, books on taxidermy, CDs by Insane Clown Posse, and natural fiber loofahs described on Amazon as useful for massaging ``even those hard-to-reach places,'' were out.

Amazon's wish list feature was the easiest to use, and the site offered the broadest assortment of merchandise. Crate & Barrel's online registry didn't offer a way to e-mail people to let them know that I'd registered there, and at Swagbag.com, doing so was complicated. I was surprised to find out that L.L. Bean, one of the oldest e-commerce sites, didn't offer a wish list feature at all.

Once I'd created some wish lists, I found myself in a quandary. How would I let people know that I expected them to shop from my lists, rather than buying me any ``inspired'' or ``creative'' gifts? This is the cultural Bermuda Triangle that wish lists fall into: They're easy to create but not so easy to tell people about.

I tested a few different e-mails. One read like this:

``Dear NAME - It occurs to me that you're probably beginning to worry about what you'll get me for the holidays this year. To help ease your burden, I've created a wish list on Amazon.com. It not only helps me get gifts that I actually want, but it helps Amazon creep closer to profitability, and could even brighten the overall e-commerce picture for Xmas 2001.''

The responses ran the gamut - from blisteringly negative to lukewarm.

My friend Ben wrote back, ``I find [your] list disturbing. It's limited to magazines, books, and Woody Allen movies. With all the dot-coms going out of business and people losing their jobs, couldn't Amazon pick a more diverse inventory of gifts (like mortgages and health care coverage)?''

Another friend said that the idea of a wish list made her ``positively ill. I love giving gifts, not so much for occasions, but because you saw something that really made you think of the person.'' She is clearly a Michelangelo of the Mall. But even she conceded, ``some people are hard to buy for, and it might be nice [if they had wish lists].''

My friend Suzi said, ``When you sent me that e-mail, I struck you off my list.'' I think she was joking. But another friend did say that she thought of registries as something that was appropriate only for weddings and baby showers - neither of which I was planning.

Finally, a longtime friend and former colleague responded, ``I'm very pro wish lists because I believe [they] direct purchases toward what people want, thus reducing wasteful spending and clutter in closets.'' Unfortunately, that friend is on an asceticism kick and says he is not buying anyone presents this year.

I did manage to persuade my girlfriend and two other friends to create wish lists of their own, which seemed like it would simplify the process of shopping for them and ensure that I wouldn't have to witness any Oscar-worthy performances when they opened my gifts.

I also persuaded Tom Hopcroft, president of the Massachusetts E-Commerce Association, to create a wish list, and we exchanged inexpensive gifts - kind of a virtual, not-so-Secret Santa program. Hopcroft pointed out two drawbacks to the system.

First, he observed, wish lists force the wisher to be very specific about what he wants. ``It would have been helpful if I could have just listed `inexpensive DVD player' generically rather than having to pick one out, since there were many similar units,'' he wrote in an e-mail. Second, there's no way on most sites to specify when you'd like a particular gift to arrive.

One problem, from the merchant's perspective, is something called ``automatic decrementing,'' according to Peter Wolfe, who founded Swagbag.com. The idea is that if someone buys something from your list, that item is no longer available for someone else to buy. ``It's easy to do technologically, if someone buys a gift for you online,'' Wolfe says. ``But the problem is if someone goes to the Sears at the mall to buy you something you asked for on the Web. Most of the time they forget to go to the Web site mark it as bought.''

Despite that, some merchants find wish lists to be a boon, although they say it's hard to measure their impact. ``It's a chicken-and-egg thing,'' says Sally McKinsey, division vice president of e-commerce at Eddie Bauer. ``We see people coming back and spending more because they have a wish list. But is that something they'd be doing anyway, and they just happen to be using a wish list, or is that loyalty a result of the list? We don't really know.''

I was still searching for the right approach to letting people know about my lists, which weren't attracting much traffic. Perhaps it was because I was prodding friends and family members before Thanksgiving; perhaps it was because of the sensitive etiquette issues (and sheer self-absorption) of calling people's attention to things you'd like them to buy you.

Rob Leathern, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix who wrote that firm's report on wish list usage, recommended that subtlety was the best approach. ``Try mentioning it in passing, when your friends are talking about holiday shopping,'' he said. Someone else suggested I should add a line to the bottom of my outgoing e-mails - something to the effect of, ``If you're feeling generous, please visit my online registry.''

My friend Mikko, who created a wish list of her own, had the most straightforward message; she sent out an e-mail that said, ``If you love me, you will buy me this stuff.''

The last person I turned to for advice was Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon.com. I sent him an e-mail about my wish list through his site, and a few days later we spoke by phone. He told me that five million people kept wish lists on Amazon.com and that he'd had one since the company launched the feature. (It's publicly available. Bezos received the pink lawn flamingos he asked for, but no one has yet knocked off the $799 night vision goggles.)

``The best way is to not try and get people to buy things off your list,'' Bezos counseled, ``but have them build lists for your convenience. You'd say, `I really want to get you something for Chanukah. Would you mind building a wish list?' That's perfectly acceptable, because it's more about the other person.''

That solved my Uninspired Laggard problem but not my Bad Actor problem.Bezos hinted that when people were building their own lists on a site, it might occur to them to check to see if I'd created a list there . . . and possibly buy something from it.

Bezos, whose second child arrived earlier in the month, said he hadn't yet had the time to add any baby gifts to his wish list but was planning to. Before we hung up, he said he'd looked at my list and we decided to do a gift swap; he hinted that he might be giving me a magazine subscription I'd asked for - a gift that keeps on giving. I told him there was no way he was getting night vision goggles from me. (Canny promoter that he is, Bezos also said that he thought he would buy some random gifts from a few Bostonians' lists a few days after this article runs - an act of goodwill/marketing he occasionally likes to perform.)

After several weeks of wish list usage, I noticed that I'd acquired annoying habits. Not only was I pestering friends to build wish lists of their own and tell me what they thought about mine, but I was constantly checking my lists to see what had been purchased so far. It was the 21st-century version of checking the closet to see how many wrapped gifts with your name on them were stashed inside.

Even though promoting wish list usage among my circle of friends and family seemed like a viable way to keep consumer spending strong, as our president was urging, my friend Wendy made a good point: Perhaps what would feel best this holiday season isn't exchanging gifts among perfectly comfortable people but giving something to the community at large.

Wish lists, I learned, are useful there, too. Some charities keep wish lists of their own, which offer donors a chance to buy them something useful and tangible rather than just writing a check.

Amazon.com maintains a list of some organizations it supports, like Toys for Tots and Habitat for Humanity, at www.amazon.com/charities. Boston's Computer Clubhouse, which provides after-school programs that help young people ``develop skills and build confidence in themselves through the use of technology,'' had a list on Amazon, too. The Clubhouse is asking for things like blank CD-ROMs, Web cams, and various LEGO kits.

Using the Web to satisfy a charity's wishes probably means there's a fifth type of person who operates online during the holidays, in addition to the Michelangelos of the Mall, the Uninspired Laggards, the Bad Actors, and the Oscar Contenders: the Munificent Benefactor.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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