NEW YORK – If you're not sure what to buy for the 40-year-old, world-traveling chocoholic on your holiday list or are stumped when it comes to the Beanie Baby-collecting, crossword puzzle-obsessed grandparent, then look no further than the Internet.
Online shopping is increasingly popular these days, and Web sites like Surprise.com and Findgift.com offer myriad gift suggestions for different "types" of friends, relatives and co-workers, as well as specific ideas based on age, gender and interests for everyone on your gift-giving list.
Surprise.com gives ideas for 342 kinds of people, including those who fall under categories such as "always cold," "works too much," "grinches and scrooges" and "gadgeteer."
For someone who "lives in a small apartment," recommendations range from a hanging pot rack to a storage ottoman. Among suggestions for "caffeine fiends" are chocolate stir spoons, coffee art and coffee stationery, while one potential gift for the "meat lover" is a personalized branding iron.
Consumers like Perry Bashkoff, a 24-year-old director of e-commerce for WEA Corp. (search), are exactly who customized sites are after.
"I do all my gift purchases online," he said. "Like everyone else, I work crazy hours and the convenience and pricing, in most instances, allow me to get the best value for my money while waiting until the last second to do so."
Bashkoff isn't alone. A recent report by Jupiter Research (search) predicted online holiday retail sales for November and December will reach $17 billion — a 21 percent increase over the same time last year.
And e-tailers are doing everything they can to encourage shoppers to log on. At Surprise.com, which was selected by Time magazine as one of the 50 Best Web sites, suggestions are based on ideas from other shoppers and can be sorted by popularity.
"We set out to create sort of a community site where people can share these ideas," said Darrell Benatar, president of Surprise.com, who founded the company with his wife.
Users can submit gift ideas and specify the price and age group it's geared to. Benatar said the most popular categories on the site are personality- and situation-specific groups.
"They suddenly come across something and say, 'oh yeah, they have a bad back, I forgot about that' and now I have [gift-buying] hope,'" he said.
Even if shoppers don't actually purchase gifts online, some just surf for inspiration.
"I think customizing sites are a great idea. They can give you some ideas as to what to give and come up with gifts you never thought of," said Don Fisher, a retirement planning coordinator for T. Rowe Price.
But he added: "If you don't know the person well enough to pick out a good gift, then why are you buying them something in the first place?"
Another popular site is Findgift.com, which offers over 8,000 ideas from over 360 online stores that are organized by popularity among 4,000 categories like "occupational themed gifts," "patriotic," "exercise and wellness" and "eco-friendly and organic."
Users can specify the age and gender of the recipient, as well as a price range for the gift. A search for a $26-$50 gift for a 25-30-year-old man yielded items as diverse as a LIFE magazine from the week they were born to personalized Titleist golf balls.
Or consumers can pick gifts according to the type of person they're looking for, including romantic, wacky, cosmopolitan, trendy and relaxing. Under healthy gifts, the suggestions range from a gift basket of sugar-free treats to an FM radio pedometer.
To remain relevant all year long, Findgift.com also offers an e-mail reminder service to help people remember anniversaries, birthdays and other special occasions.
"Most people have trouble thinking of creative and unique gift ideas for people," said Bob Zakrzewski, president and co-founder of Findgift.com. "We got the idea when we were at a wedding … We felt that wedding registries are going to evolve from the weddings and baby showers on to more general gift giving occasions and the Internet was a perfect medium to facilitate that change."
Search engines like Yahoo also have special holiday shopping sections and gifts for the "pampered princess" and "gadget guy."
Then there's always the favorite online retailers like Amazon.com, which far surpassed its original bookseller identity.
"I love Amazon.com — it's the greatest Web site ever," said 24-year-old Tim Hoefer, who bought 90 percent of his gifts online last year. "Amazon's easy to shop on. They've got music and toys and electronics and books."
Patti Freeman Evans, a retail analyst at Jupiter Research, said it makes sense for e-tailers to help shoppers slog through gift ideas and make educated choices during the stressful holiday season.
"Given the short selling season and the highest projected online holiday sales volume ever, online retailers stand to gain or lose a great deal by anticipating consumers' last minute shopping needs," she said.