groupon_screenshot_web.jpgRemember 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 are a couple of suggestions for navigating a holiday shopping season without gift wrap.

Groupon, 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, usually something along the lines of, “$10 for $20 worth of donuts.” 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 and turn it in, 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 hand it over 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, making it easier to surprise your recipient. 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:

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.


Several Internet startups are taking different approaches to digital gift-giving. One, KangoGift, lets you send a gift certificate for everything from a basic cup of coffee to a six-week music class by text

message to a recipient's cell phone, or right to their Facebook page. Then they can just bring their phone along and show it to the merchant to redeem their gift.

Another, Giftly, lets you bundle up to three different shops, restaurants or services into a single gift package — tickets at three artsy movie theaters, or pints at three different microbreweries, maybe. You decide the amount and the merchants, then send either by email, Facebook or snail-mail. This makes it easy to customize a gift, even if the merchants themselves don't offer gift cards or gift certificates.

But the recipient needs to be fairly tech-savvy. To redeem the gift, the recipient actually pays for it herself, then goes online at the shop with her smartphone to get the same amount reimbursed to a credit or debit card she registers with Giftly. (To get around the little matter of not everyone owning a smartphone, the startup is also working on a prepaid debit card that only works at the locations specified on the Giftly.)

While teenagers may be the earliest adopters, buying them a gift that can be sent straight to their smartphones comes with the same pitfalls as any other type of gift: It must walk the line between proving you have made an effort to understand who they are and what they like, and giving them enough choice that they don't feel boxed in.

Technology hasn't fixed that problem yet.

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THE NEXT THING: For that last-minute gift.