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I Want, I Want, I Want

Wish lists come to the rescue for uninspired givers, picky recipients—and pretty much everyone else

A couple of years ago I exercised my newfound excitement about Equal Exchange—a cooperatively owned company specializing in fair-trade, organic coffee, tea, and cocoa—with a number of gifts for a wide range of family. The cocoa was a universal favorite, and the coffee got some good reviews. My mother told me in her usual blunt fashion that Equal Exchange tea didn’t meet her standards (I have since found other organic, fair-trade tea that does). Not wanting to be as straightforward as my mother, my brother-in-law subtly, but with unmistakable intent, added Starbucks coffee to his wish list the following year. Wish lists have many uses.

The Christmas/winter-holiday wish list has an ambivalent place in many of our hearts. Most of us started out writing, and possibly even mailing, our letters to Santa. They were serious endeavors, filled with touching moments (“I want my grandma to get better”) and life lessons about priorities and disappointments (“Didn’t Santa know that I just listed Matchbox cars as filler?”).

But as an adult, the players get more numerous and the expectations get more fuzzy. Aren’t we supposed to be able to divine the perfect gift for everyone at all times? Doesn’t asking for things spoil the surprise? Sending a wish list to someone who didn’t ask for one can feel like a questioning of their gift-selecting skills. Requesting one can feel like an admission of laziness.

But shopping for a tough-to-please relative or newly acquired in-law, or figuring out how to dispose of yet another ill-matched gift, can get most of us over the hump and into the strategy phase, even if it’s still a little uncomfortable. (When I finally instituted a permanent online wish list on my homepage, I felt compelled to hedge it with a title something like “Not because I’m greedy but because everyone always asks.”)

The central balancing acts of a wish list are simple: First, list enough that people have options while still making it likely that you’ll get some of your top choices. Second, be specific enough to get what you really want, without making life hell for your potential gift givers. If you’re like me and are tempted to write something like “[clothing item] made of organic cotton, not made in sweatshops or sold by a union-busting big corporation, with hypoallergenic dye, in a warm color . . . ,” do everyone, including yourself if you really want the item, a favor: Skip the moralizing, do the research yourself, and just provide a link to the thing you have in mind, or at least the product name, bar-code number, and store’s address.

Meanwhile, there’s also the likelihood that wish lists, especially ones seen by lots of people, will spawn duplicate gifts. That’s where online wish-list registries come in. Expanding on the idea of wedding registries, online wish lists avoid duplications by allowing people to check off what they’ve bought. Additional benefits of the online approach are that the lists can be updated in an ongoing way, after the url has been distributed to friends and family (who thinks of everything at once?), and specific requests can be made easy for the shoppers through direct hyperlinks.

Oddly, according to a number of articles from 2000-2001, people were slow to adopt the online approach (and indeed, most of the sites listed in those articles are now belly up). But a new generation is going strong, refusing to let a good idea go unrealized.

If you want an online wish list, here’s what you should know: Most are free, funding themselves with advertising, often in the form of “recommended gift ideas.” Beware of those that only let you request products from their partner stores (unless you really like their partner stores). There are plenty—,, or, to name a few—that allow you to request anything you want, general or vague, online or off. You can even link to your favorite cause or charity’s donation page. With these sites, you can support local businesses by suggesting or linking to them rather than linking to a mail-order site.

Of course, maybe you don’t really want stuff, or don’t trust anyone else to shop for you. Besides lightening up a little, you do have a wish-list option: Using a time-honored nonprofit fund-raising technique, Small Wishes allows you to list a wanted item, but ask people to give you the cash value of it, rather than buying it for you. (It also allows you to mix in items that you want people to actually buy.) The caveat here is that you have to establish a financial account with the site, and it’ll take a 9-percent cut of any cash gifts you receive. So be sure cash and control are really important to you.

In fact, if you really want cash, and you think your fam will really balk at giving it to you, Small Wishes offers a devious workaround: for items from, you can make it so givers think they are buying the item and having it shipped to you, when actually you’re getting the cold, hard moolah. “It makes both you and the purchaser happy because you get the money, and they think they bought you something you need,” reads the site’s FAQ. Ah, warm fuzzy deception.

On the friendlier side, allows you to set up family groups, the members of whom can not only view each other’s lists, but add to them. For example, if my brother hasn’t put juggling rings on his list, but I and a bunch of my family members know he wants them, I can go add them to his list and immediately mark that I’ve bought them, so everyone else knows not to get them. (Or, though the site doesn’t promote this, I could list something I think he’d like but know only my parents could afford, and not mark that I’ve bought it.) These added entries are hidden from the intended recipient.

So the tools are there; now it’s your turn. Like the self-improvement gurus say, you’re not going to get what you want until you know what it is—and ask for it. Happy listing!

—Miriam Axel-Lute

2004 Gift Guide Home

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