I am signed up to receive several tech-related newsletters and promotions from various companies. About 3 or 4 of them are for well-known, technology-focused stores and it must be that time of year. Instead of the usual storage, laptop or video card upgrade specials, the emails have shifted to promoting those electronic do-dads such as RC cars and helicopters, laser pointers and laser parking assists, and other items that you’ve never heard of before seem pretty cool and kinda’ want for yourself. Even if you do not belong to one of the many sects of Christianity, the end of the year present-fest is hard to resist no matter what your religious affiliation or lack thereof.
Sure there’s always Thinkgeek, the year round e-shop that has those kitschy toys and popular sci-fi branded merchandise. (Will someone please get me that Doctor Who Desktop Dalek? I know I would never buy it for myself. And if you really love me there’s that Kiwi WiFi iPhone ODBII interface… but I digress.) But this time of year, everyone gets into the act. Most stores know the target price for the bulk of items range from about $20-$50 for presents since people have more friends than they do significant others or very loved family members and a majority of people can’t afford expensive gifts.
What this means is that among the toys and gadgets that are used a few times and stuffed into a closet or storage bin (much like 80%-90% of presents given to children during their birthday or holidays), there are a few things that are not only practical, but can help you save money if you strike when they hit a sale price you only dream about. I remember a few year back I decided to brave Black Friday crowds and hit an office supply superstore. I scored a $100 color laser printer with a decent duty cycle and very reasonable consumables cost. (Currently, comparable printers are still about $150-$200.)
Dreams of Jobs Past
As I check out the machine’s specs online while in the store and read various reviews, I could help but think of the first office color laser printer I steered our company toward. It cost around $6,000-$7000 dollars and took up about a cubic meter of space. I maintained it lovingly and saved our company time, money and added flexibility to our report format at the cost of a slight format change. (I was quite proud that it paid for itself in 3-4 months and dropped the cost of a production run from $500 a shot to about 10 to 15 cents per page — effectively meaning that we could produce approximately 20% more pages for the same cost if we printed 500 of the same report. We only needed about 350 so that 150 report savings added up quickly. That was one of the events that led the CEO and CFO to appoint me all things electronic purchasing czar and handed me the company credit card with no sent limit to what I could spend. They wanted me to purchase a media setup. I loved start-ups for their speed, flexibility and power they would give you, if you earned it.)
Sure, it is true you can save money online, but shopping locally from small retailers keeps more money in your community. But that’s not a license to pay full retail, without checking out average prices and researching the products you are considering. With that said, here are a few online resources to look at before you pull out your wallet.
If you are looking for electronics, there are a lot of good places, so I tend to check out aggregate sites such as dealnews.com for specials on all sorts of merchandise, retrevo.com for information on the best electronics around and pricewatch.com and pricegrabber.com for electronics and everything else. While researching this article I came across Dealnew’s Leaked Black Friday Ads section. But please exercise caution when using a price aggregation site: sometimes the best price is from a company with less than stellar business practices. So, check out member reviews — especially the negative ones for online retailers you have never dealt with before.
Specific to people like me, a self-described technology-geek that loves pop culture with a creative bent, then I would check out ThinkGeek.com. Anyone under 45 that is not a Luddite should appreciate something from there.
Gifts worth looking at: My Take
My picks for this year range from inexpensive to “you’re my best friend” level.
Let’s look at video games first: Dragon Age II is not as new, but Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is very new. If your gift recipient has not experienced prior games in either series, then you can get pervious installments (Dragon Age: Ultimate Edition or Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood) at lower prices and let them decide if they like it. Of course both of these appeal to people who like open world (free running/sandbox type) video games.
If you would like to cut the electric cord, the check out a few board games off the traditional Milton-Bradley path. Battle of the Bands is a card game from Third World Games: I have never encountered anyone who didn’t enjoy it, from kids to seniors. You take on the role as a rock ’n roll band leader, recruit members to play gigs against other players, and try to make it big. Puerto Rico is a strategy game where one acts as a colonial governor in a non-combat, resource management and building game. Sure it doesn’t sound all that fun, but if you enjoy being able to use different strategies with almost no chance affecting the outcome and no two games alike, you should enjoy this one.
Entertainment streaming devices are a dime a dozen now and it is difficult to decide which horse to bet on with the imminent streaming entertainment shakedown coming. Does one go with Netflix, that has been having management and public image problems or service from giants such as Amazon or Apple? And what about Google or Walmart’s offerings. And then there’s Hulu plus to consider. Roku’s devices manage to alleviate some of the guess-work by supporting some of the various streaming company’s mentioned, while still being inexpensive and flexible. AppleTV is another strong contender if your gift recipient already has either a Mac or an iDevice because of the Airplay video mirroring feature that allows one to stream media from their Mac or iDevice. Just realize that out-of-the-box the AppleTV only supports 720p video resolution and iTunes Store, Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo currently for streaming.
Finding the Right Gift
So, as you shop for yourself and others during this season try to spend wisely. Look for your friends’ and loved ones’ wish lists on various sites before you buy unless you know them well enough to see something they like. Men in general like practical things and gadgets, while women generally appreciate anything thoughtful that isn’t related to work or chores (unless it is on their wish list). Remember, the gifts you give should not only reflect your own sensibilities but your understanding of your friend’s preferences as well.
Getting me a sweater is like saying, “I have not paid attention to anything you’ve ever said about yourself or your hatred of sweaters.” Yet, I still occasionally get them. While giving my girlfriend a nice sweater might mean, “I heard you all the times you said you were getting cold. (And stop stealing my jacket! ;)” If you have no idea what to get a person, then you might want to question the necessity to get that person a gift. But as always there’s the fallback gift card. Just try to make sure it is for a store they already use. A few years back got a Macy’s gift card, when I hadn’t been in there for over a decade. I went in and bought the only thing that vaguely interested me and still have the remaining balance of the card. If the gift card is too impersonal: use the last option that always works: ask that person what he or she would like.
Also, if you are not tied to a holiday, like me, and you can’t find items during (or brave) Black Friday, then there’s always December 26th and January 2nd when sales fall off a cliff like that one relative you know eats too much at thanksgiving and falls asleep only to rouse for dessert. Retailers scramble to get rid of unsold inventory, clear the way for new models and grab what they can of the gift card windfall.
Give Within Your Means
Consider your total budget (try not to overspend or put anything on credit) and how many people you have to divide that by and weigh things according to your priorities. Oh, and one last thing: a gift is only a gift if nothing is expected in return, and just because you can afford a really expensive present (like $500 and up), doesn’t mean you care about someone more than someone who bought a $10 book that person really wanted. If you disagree with this last bit, then please look at your values again.
Thanks for reading. As always: constructive feedback and additional tips for others is not only welcome but appreciated.