Remember when gifts were objects, purchased or crafted and wrapped with a bow, then presented with a flourish? Over the last few years, gift cards have become a popular alternative, and now as we become increasingly connected to our smartphones, laptops and e-readers, gifts are going digital, too. Here's what you need to know to navigate a holiday shopping season without gift wrap or envelopes or even little plastic cards.
You can still buy bestsellers for loved ones who have swapped their paperbacks for an e-reader such as Amazon.com's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook and Sony's Reader. Of the three, Amazon is the only one that lets you choose a specific Kindle e-book to give as a gift. Barnes & Noble and Sony direct you to purchase a physical gift card or send an electronic one via email, either to yourself to print and present, or directly to the recipient.
To buy a book for a Kindle owner, head to the Kindle e-book store on Amazon's website. Click on any book title, and you'll see an option to "give as a gift." Amazon will send an email to the recipient once you finish checking out. When the recipient gets the notification by email, she can click on a link to accept the gift and send the title to her Kindle device. This works the same way for people who use Amazon's Kindle software to read books on smartphones and computers, too. If the recipient loses the notification email, you can go into your own Amazon order history and resend it, for no extra charge. And if it's a book the recipient has already read, she can exchange it for Amazon.com credit.
One downside if you like to get all your holiday shopping done early: Anything you order is instantly delivered.
iPads and iPhones
For the uninitiated: Apple's iPad tablet computer and iPhone smartphones can be loaded with music, movies, games, books and useful (or frivolous) programs called "apps" through Apple's iTunes store. You can buy a plastic iTunes gift card where gift cards are sold, but you can also send almost all of those types of media as gifts.
You've got to download the iTunes software and create an account if you haven't already. Then, in the iTunes store section, browse for the album, TV series or game of your choice. Next to the button prompting you to "buy this album," there should be a little arrow. Click it and pick the option to give as a gift instead.
There is one major exception: Apple doesn't yet allow you to give e-books as gifts via iTunes. And gifts from iTunes are delivered when you pay for them, making advance holiday shopping a challenge.
Groupon, LivingSocial and other group-discount sites
Some of the most-talked-about startups are group-buying sites, and Groupon, which just went public, is king of the heap. These companies send emails to their members every day advertising a special deal at a local shop, restaurant, spa or other business. Once you buy a deal, it's stored in your account. When you're ready to use it, you can either print out the voucher, or you can pull it up using a smartphone app once you're in the store.
The number of Groupon-esque sites is growing by the day; if you're interested but don't know where to start, you can sign up with a deal aggregator like Yipit, which collects all the deals in your area in a single email.
If you see a deal that will make a perfect gift, Groupon and LivingSocial make it pretty easy. Both show "give as a gift" options right on the main deal page.
When you click to purchase a Groupon, an email goes to the recipient. If you would rather make it a surprise, you can send it to yourself, then print and give later. Groupons are almost all transferable, even though the name of the buyer will remain on the voucher. Just be sure to look over the fine print to confirm. If one of your recipients is all about Groupons, but you don't see a deal you know she'll like, the company also sells gift cards.
With LivingSocial, once you buy a deal, you can also go into your account later and opt to give something as a gift. This site lets you set a date for delivery. There are some quirks in the LivingSocial gifting process. For one thing, if you say you're going to print out the voucher, but then change your mind, you won't be able to email it as a gift later. Good thing there's a pretty detailed "help" section on the site.
Now, using coupons and discounts to buy gifts isn't new. But when you give the gift of Groupon, the recipient will know you paid less.