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5 Gift Ideas When You Don’t Know What They Want

Editor’s Note: This article is a revised version of an article that appears in a 2013 issue of The Social Media Monthly. If you like it, you might want to download The Social Media Monthly iPad app or iPhone app and subscribeor order a print subscription.

The holidays are over by now, and perhaps you made a few blunders in your gift giving. The wrapping paper was peeled back, the box was gingerly opened, and the fake half-smile appeared. “Thank you,” they said. “It’s…nice.”

“While giving and receiving gifts is meant to be happy, it’s often time consuming, nerve-racking, or challenging to do it well,” says founder Adam Stober of Mystery Gift Machine.

You could have gone with a gift certificate, but who wants to buy a generic gift for someone they love? “Gift giving is also hard because we want to give gifts that reflect something about yourself, the recipient, and your relationship with them,” explains Giftly founder Tim Bentley.

Well, now is the time to make up for your holiday missteps. Valentine’s Day is coming, maybe even a birthday, and you have a chance to redeem yourself. Here are five ways to give gifts without knowing what they want.

Subscription Boxes

Tons and tons of startups are now offering subscription boxes, monthly shipments of curated goodies from food to fashion to health products. It’s surprise, variety, and personalization all in one.

For women: Try Umba Box for handmade goods, Birchbox for beauty samples, Me Undies for underwear, or KLUTCHwomen for health and wellness products, like tea, shampoo, and energy bars.

For men: Try Birchbox Man for grooming and lifestyle samples, Me Undies for briefs, Dollar Shave Club for razors, or KLUTCHmen for health and wellness products, like jerky, body spray, and vitamins. If you’re feeling bold, Dollar Rubber Club can even send a monthly shipment of condoms.

For foodies: Send a caffeine fix from Tonx or La Colombe Coffee, get your gourmet on with Knoshbox, offer a bunch of food samples from Goodies by Walmart, or send caveman-inspired snacks with PaleoPax.

For parents: BabbaBox sends a box of activities to do with kids, including materials, books, and downloads. The boxes are all themed, like a “gratitude” box with materials to build thank you cards. Send kids’ clothes with Wittlebee, or try Bluum’s selection of baby care (plus some treats for mom, like organic tea).

Many of these startups let you order one box at a time. For the rest, just buy a monthly subscription and then cancel after the first month (unless you’re feeling abnormally generous).

Mystery Gift Machine

It’s the robot we’ve all been waiting for: one that buys gifts for us. Mystery Gift Machine helps with group gifts by gathering money and suggestions from everyone. Based on all that input, it buys a gift and ships it to the recipient – a surprise for everyone involved.

Mystery Gift Machine could send anything from a massage certificate to chocolate-covered strawberries to a telescope. It gives more weight to suggestions that are from the organizer, very specific, or from someone who contributes a lot of money. If the recipient doesn’t like the gift, they can always do a return or exchange.

“It’s earned a PhD in Giftology,” jokes Stober. “And his gift-picking algorithm gets smarter with every purchase.”


If a robot picking out your gifts sounds less than appealing, how about a real person? TaskRabbit is a website and app where you can hire trustworthy people to do almost any task. “TaskRabbits” have been chosen through an intense selection process, which includes an essay, video screening, and background check.

For around $20 or $30, you can hire someone to pick up and deliver a gift, or just come up with ideas. For example, one man used it to solicit gift ideas for his elderly parents, by giving a quick description of their interests and personality. He got great suggestions on December 19, just in time. Another woman hired someone to pick up a gift for her second-grade niece.

TaskRabbit is available in nine major cities and tons of other towns around the country.


Ideal for people further down your shopping list, the SomethingStore sends something to the person of your choice, for just $10. “Yours may be a cool gadget, rare book, table game, handmade necklace, reverse clock, box of gourmet chocolates, popular video game, big-box retailer gift card, the latest version of a software, a set of kitchen knives, a pair of handmade earrings, garden tool, kitchen appliance, unique home decor item, electronic equipment, magazine subscription, [or] office supply item,” the website explains.

Items are guaranteed to be worth at least $10, although some are refurbished rather than brand new. And there are no returns, refunds, or exchanges, except for broken items.

The site has seen over 64,000 orders since October 2007. Like Mystery Gift Machine, try this option if you’re feeling adventurous.


Finally, Giftly tries to mimic the ease of a gift card while offering something a little more personal. You can send gift cards for specific items, not just a store: for example, a beer at the local tavern or a cupcake from Sprinkles. People have also gifted hotel stays and even a tire change.

“Gifting is something that hits home with a lot of people. It’s a fundamental part of human relationships,” says Bentley. “The real human connection that we are promoting and facilitating is really special.”

If we’re talking about giving gifts without knowing what someone wants, that’s possible, too: you can just gift someone “a fancy dinner” or “a new sweater” or even “that thing you’ve been wanting to buy.”

This is possible because Giftly doesn’t work with merchants at all. In short, recipients buys the item with their own funds, and then their credit card gets credited. If they don’t like the gift, they can buy something else, notify you (the sender), and still get credited the money. All this is done for a small fee, around $5 for a $100 gift.

These five products try to retain the social aspects of gifting, across the sometimes-impersonal medium of the Internet. They all have just enough personalization – or, in the case of the SomethingStore, at least a dash of uniqueness – without the need for panic-stricken hours at the mall.

Happy gifting!

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Written by:
Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact
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