Consumer's guide to downloadable gifts

By Jessica Mintz

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Nov. 10 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

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: http://help.livingsocial.com/help_topics/gifts

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.

— Facebook-based gift cards and mobile apps

Lord & Taylor is among the retailers experimenting with what they're calling "social gifting," which in their case means making it easy to tap friends on Facebook to pitch in for a gift certificate. If you're not already a Facebook devotee, it probably doesn't make sense to join up just for this. But if you already have connected with friends on the social networking site, keep reading.

From Lord & Taylor's Facebook page, you can click a link that says gift cards to install a virtual gift card app. Pick the recipient and the amount you want to spend, and set a date for delivery in the future. Once you pay for the gift card, you can then invite others to contribute additional money to the gift card. You could tweet or email the link, or the app will help by suggesting friends you have in common, so you can send a quick Facebook message. You could post the plea to your own Facebook wall, too, though the recipient might see that.

On the delivery date, the recipient will get an email or a Facebook message showing how much each person contributed; they can send the gift to their phone or print out a barcode to redeem the gift certificate.

A growing number of other stores, including Starbucks and Target, allow customers to pay via mobile phone apps, and gift cards can be converted for use in those accounts.

— Startups

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. Most of the offers are clustered in four cities — Boston; New York; Madison, Wis.; and Chapel Hill, N.C. — but there are some national merchants on board, such as Fandango for movie tickets, that sell things that can be redeemed online.

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.)

More information at http://www.giftly.com or http://www.kangogift.com.

With many of these options, one of the biggest challenges is timing. In some cases, the only way to give a gift on the first night of Hanukkah or Christmas morning is to dash to the computer at the right moment to hit send.

But even for the most tech-savvy on your gift list, you might be better served making the presentation more traditional, says Tracy Tuten, an associate marketing professor at East Carolina University who has made gift-giving research her specialty. That's because all the emotions that make gifts an important part of relationships happen when you hand over the neatly wrapped package and not when the person is actually getting the pedicure you bought for her with a Groupon.

And 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, Tuten says. 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.

Sorry, technology hasn't fixed that problem yet.

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