It’s My Birthday. Buy Me a Present.

Jack Aaronson

Updated · May 05, 2003

Time for my annual birthday column. Last year at this time, I wrote a column about how peoples’ preferences change over time. Last year, my birthday was a time to reflect on how my needs and my desires changed with time. I wondered if any “personalized” sites out there would adapt automatically to changes in interest, or whether I’d abandon them because they knew only an outdated snapshot of me.

This year, I’m less introspective. I just want people to buy me things! So for this year’s annual birthday column, a roundup of Internet gift-giving tools. If you sell to consumers, you know a large percentage of people go online to buy gifts. How do you cater to these users? What kinds of personalization and CRM initiatives can you develop for them?

I’m sure you’ve used many of these features already. This column tries to collect all in one place, look at the pros and cons of their effectiveness and value in creating long-term loyalty, and provide some best practices for your efforts.

Hand-Selected Lists

The most common online gift service is the hand-selected list. Simple “good gift ideas” the company’s staff puts together. One of my all-around favorite stores is SmarterKids is a big gift site because its products are aimed at children (from birth to age 12). Kids don’t buy for themselves, so the entire site is a gift-giving guide.

I especially love its “Grandparent’s Center,” a great gift section. Anyone (not just a grandparent) can go into it and learn about a child’s developmental cycle and the products appropriate for the child’s place in that cycle. I found out what kind of interactions a preschooler needs to increase language skills. Then, of course, there are products recommended to me. You can also find lists of products by “experts,” such as “Teachers’ Favorites” and “Parents’ Favorites.”

Automatically Generated Lists

Some SmarterKids lists are hand-selected, some are automatically generated. Because the product database is set up from a user-centric, needs-based point of view, it’s quite easy to pick a set of keywords that identifies a “user type” or “user need,” then use the site search engine to generate a product list.

Both methods are effective. Hand-selected lists require a lot of maintenance by staff, but the lists are usually better and might contain unusual items that might be “out of the ordinary.” An automated lists probably won’t contain too many surprises or allow for any serendipity. The upkeep is easier, since it is all automatic. However, you need to have a robust database filled with user-centric metadata about your products (e.g., age ranges, activities in which the product is used, etc.).


Configurators are similar to automatically generated lists, with an important exception. Users identify the metadata that are important to them. Configurators are most often seen on the Web at major computer stores, such as By going through a series of steps and identifying product attributes you want, Dell selects the most appropriate components. In gift-giving, attributes include age, gender, interest, occasion, and budget.

It’s more work, and more technology, to create configurators. Because they are dynamic and interactive, they engage the user more and make him feel in control. If a set of recommendations doesn’t please, the user can adjust attributes and generate a new list. This makes him feel more involved in the gift-giving process and may help generate a sale.

Gift Registries

Gift registries have been around as long as stores. On the Internet, you can buy a wedding gift for a couple from their registry, have it shipped automatically, and not even bother to attend the wedding. Well-designed registries are fast and easy to use. They enable almost brainless transactions.

The problem is people don’t fill out gift registries for ordinary occasions (I don’t, anyway). I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling my friends and family I had a birthday gift registry — especially if there wasn’t a big party with formal invitations.

Registries work for weddings and other big occasions. They require lots of technology (or a vendor partnership) and have a small demographic. If you understand your customers, you might find a registry is an obvious need or not needed at all. Companies such as Williams-Sonoma know a large percentage of their clients buy gifts or get married. A gift registry makes sense for them. Baby sites (that someone would use when preparing a baby shower) are good candidates as well.

The Page You Made has a feature I like, “The Page You Made.” It’s not intended as a gift-giving guide but can be used that way. I’m sure you’ve used the feature. Basically, it watches your searches and product views and puts together an automatically merchandised page containing products you’ve looked at and related products you might also like.

Here’s how I use this feature for gift-giving: Think of products the recipient already owns. Shop for three or four of these, then go to “The Page You Made.” Voilà! A fully merchandised page with ideas the recipient will probably like.

Amazon has many other “personalization” features that can be used for gift-giving. My other favorite is its “Listmania” section, in which users list products centered on a topic or a need.

Gift Wrapping and Shipping

There are back-end implications to gift services. Back-end systems need to handle gifts. Can you handle gift wrapping? Can you drop-ship anywhere other than the current customer’s address? Can you package a product with a “gift receipt” without the price? These services must be in place before front-end gift features can launch.

Effective Gift Selection Features

As with any new feature, reporting must be built in. Gather data on:

  • What types of users used the various gift-giving services?
  • How long did users spend using a gift service?
  • Did use of the service generate a sale directly?
  • Did use of the service generate a sale indirectly (e.g., the user started with the gift service but bought something else on the site)?
  • Did the service generate a customer acquisition?

These metrics help determine the success of a gift service (or any other feature).

Of course, there’s an easier way to gauge the success of all these features. My birthday is next week. Buy me 10 or 15 different gifts. Use a variety of online services. Tell me (in your card) which sites and gift-giving features on those sites you used. I’ll collect them all and write a column on each service’s effectiveness, based on my personal enjoyment of the gifts everyone bought me.

Sounds fair, right? Happy shopping!

Until next time…


Jack Aaronson is the CEO of the Aaronson Group as well as a corporate
. The Aaronson Group works with companies to increase the
loyalty and satisfaction among their customers, increasing their
profitability. Focusing on multi-channel user experiences, Jack and his
team makes sure that your users have a fulfilling and enjoyable user
experience across all of your touchpoints. As a corporate lecturer,
Jack also travels around the world teaching companies how to effectively
implement personalization, loyalty programs and multi-channel CRM. He also publishes a newsletter about Personalization, User Experience and other related issues.

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