'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. But back at the office -- What? You're still there? -- your mouse was scurrying: A deal was in the air! So you logged onto the Net to do some last-minute shopping -- and breathed a sigh of relief: These Web stores are hopping!
We know, we're mixing our Christmas images. But carols and stories are the heart-warming part of the holidays. As for all your holiday shopping -- well, that headache is enough to make a little drummer boy beat himself silly with a stick.
Face it: The holiday season is as much about guilt and anxiety as it is about peace and joy -- especially for all you overworked businesspeople. Could the holidays possibly come at a less-convenient time? After all, late December means more than just eggnog and reindeer. It also means racing to meet year-end quotas and to finalize next year's budgets. It's hard to stroll through the mall when you're stuck in planning meetings -- or tethered to your computer, revising cash-flow projections on a spreadsheet. So where do you find great holiday gifts? On the Web, of course!
This edition of @Work offers a list of great virtual places to go for holiday gifts. It includes options for when you want to browse, for when you know just what you're looking for, and for when what you need is a good gift recommendation. So let's take a trip to the virtual mall. You don't have to leave the office -- and there's always a place to park!
Browse Without Bruises
The nice thing about shopping in stores is that you'll discover gift ideas that you'd never think of on your own. But it's hard to enjoy browsing in a store when you're trading elbows with thousands of other stressed-out shoppers. That's why we scoured the Web to find the best stores for you to browse -- on your browser.
Catalog City (www.catalogcity.com) catalogs more than 15,000 catalogs -- most of the name-brand favorites, plus thousands of focused offerings. But the site is more than a directory. It also displays scanned pages from most of its featured catalogs, and it lets users order directly through the site. It also offers some neat shopping services, including a Gift Registry and a Remind Me feature (the equivalent of marking a page with a Post-it note).
If you're an unreconstructed mall rat, then iMall (www.imall.com) is the closest thing to the real thing on the Web. Truth be told, the average Internet mall is little more than a collection of links to utterly obscure e-commerce sites. But iMall is an online community that features what CEO Richard Rosenblatt, 29, calls a "very eclectic mix of name brands and small merchants." The mall hosts more than 1,600 merchants and offers more than 2 million products.
What makes iMall different? For one thing, it includes retailers that you've heard of: Disney Collectibles, FAO Schwarz, Barnes & Noble. As for small retailers, it helps them create and host their own sites -- which gives the mall an overall coherence.
You say you've had it with catalogs and malls, and just want a good old department store? Then visit NetMarket (www.netmarket.com), a membership site that offers a wide range of products, from home electronics to garden supplies, to members as well as nonmembers. (A three-month trial membership costs $1.00; a yearly membership runs $69.95.) NetMarket's core advantage is value: low prices, refunds, and warranties. Its most surprising benefit is fun -- in the form of the Haggle Zone.
Using the Haggle Zone's online characters, shoppers bargain with the site over prices for brand-name products. You and the virtual merchant engage in a real-time exchange, while a specially developed algorithm negotiates the give-and-take. The haggling continues until a compromise is reached or until the merchant decides that you're not serious.
Still looking for places to browse but feeling overwhelmed? Then chill out with coolshopping.com (www.coolshopping.com). The site's team surfs the Net, looking for the most interesting, the most innovative, and the "coolest" shops on the Web -- and then organizes them into areas such as "Sports," "Gifts," and "Discount Shopping." The site also personalizes your experience. If you're interested in sporting goods, for example, then add "Sports" to your list of preferences. The next time you visit the site, coolshopping.com will show you all of the new listings in its sporting-goods area.
New Places for Old Reliables
It's a Fast Company mantra: If you want to win big in business, you've got to play by different rules. But when you're shopping for holiday gifts -- and especially when time is scarce -- it pays to play things safe. And the Web offers several cutting-edge places to buy reliable gifts.
CDnow (www.cdnow.com) has launched a pair of new services that make it easier to give the gift of music. Why guess at which Sinatra CD your father still doesn't have, or whether those Barenaked Ladies your son keeps raving about are a rock group or a porn site? CDnow's Gift Registry functions like a bridal registry for music lovers. A customer identifies the music that he or she would like to receive as a gift. Then gift givers visit the site, enter that customer's email address, scroll through the choices, and make a selection. Once you buy a specific CD, it gets removed from the registry, so that no one else will buy the same gift for that person -- at least not from CDnow.
If you're shopping for something more personal, then visit CDnow's Custom Shop (www.cdnow.com/customshop). You can select up to 10 tracks (or up to 40 minutes of music) and arrange the songs on a disc in any order you'd like. CDnow packages your title and ships the disc within 24 hours. Custom CDs cost $14.95 each.
If music isn't in tune with your tastes, what about plants and garden supplies? The place to start is garden.com (www.garden.com), by Garden Escape Inc. The site's gift area offers a wide variety of gift baskets, edibles, bath-and-body products -- even garden-themed jewelry. But its most original offering has nothing to do with what goes under your Christmas tree -- and lots to do with the tree itself! The site sells tree trimmings, wreaths, garlands, and (yes) trees. Just choose one of three different sizes, specify the week when you'd like your tree to arrive, and wait for FedEx to knock on your door. Prices range from $50 to $120.
So you've bought the right music and some beautiful plants. Why not add some delicious food? Digital Chef (www.digitalchef.com), launched in association with the Culinary Institute of America, is the perfect resource for finding a gourmet gift -- or for cooking up a tasty holiday feast. You can choose one of several preselected gift baskets, create one of your own, obtain recommendations based on your taste and price level, or send an electronic gift certificate. A Last Minute Gift Shop features products that can be delivered right up until Christmas Eve.
What Would You Recommend?
Is there someone on your gift list who's just impossible to buy for? Then ask for help! Smart Web sites monitor what you're buying -- and then recommend products that fit your tastes. And the smartest sites use technology created by Net Perceptions, a software outfit based in Minneapolis that works with some of the Web's most popular destinations.
CDnow's Album Advisor is a case in point. The "advisor" asks you to enter three of your favorite artists (or, if you're buying for someone else, three of that person's favorites). Then it searches for other people who like the same artists; following those people's preferences, it suggests other artists worth listening to. How do you know if a "recommendation engine" is powered by Net Perceptions? You don't. "Customers know that CDnow does a great job of recommending music," says Steve Larsen, 48, vice president of marketing and business development at Net Perceptions. "They don't need to know that we're behind it."
There is one recommendation engine that may be superior to Net Perceptions: It's powered by real human beings. That's why SoundStone.com (www.soundstone.com), another online music retailer, features a real-time, one-to-one customer-service center called HelpLive! Just hit the HelpLive! icon, enter your name and question, and within seconds, you and a customer-service rep will be chatting away. The reps can even "push" a Web page to your browser. If you ask for jazz recommendations, for example, a rep may suggest a Miles Davis disc -- and show you the product in your browser window. You can even have transcripts of your chat emailed to you.
What would we recommend as a gift for the person who has everything? How about an "of-the-month club" subscription from Of-The-Month.com (www.of-the-month.com)? This site offers monthly selections from 30 different clubs -- outfits that sell everything from lingerie to neckties, from jelly beans to cheesecake.
We hope these Web sites will help you find a great gift for everyone on your list -- and leave you with enough time to make that year-end sales quota.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.
Gina Imperato (email@example.com) is a Fast Company associate editor. Please don't give her a fruitcake for Christmas.