By Ann Hoevel
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(CNN) -- If gift-giving was easy, everyone would get the holiday presents they wanted and no one would have to stand in line to return unwanted merchandise in the last days of December.
Like many other problems, the Internet offers one solution -- some people are finding the answers to their holiday shopping woes with online wish list services.
These Web sites offer easy-to-use formatting, a fast shopping interface and community interaction in an attempt to keep gift-giving and gift-getting personal.
"We are getting close to a thousand new users a day signing up for our wish lists feature," said Manish Chandra of Kaboodle.com, an online wish list site.
Kaboodle.com launched in February 2006. As of the third week in November, "we're getting close to about 100,000 users in total," he said.
Business has grown steadily for wish list service providers over the last five years, according to Wishlist.com spokesman Keith Kraemer. Guy White, CEO of TheThingsIWant.com agrees, estimating his Web site's business is up 80 percent over last year.
"It's been about the same almost each year. We did get those tech-savvy [users] who put us though our paces and tested [our wish list services] out well, and they're telling people that this is the thing to do. I mean, it's almost rude not to have a wish list these days," he said.
Is it cheating?
Etiquette and gift-giving experts agree that the onus is on the gift-giver to know what kinds of presents his or her loved ones desire, with or without an online wish list. The gift-giver should know the recipient well enough to decide on a gift that speaks to the recipient's interests and conveys a message of friendship, love or thanks.
While selecting gifts from a wish list is easier than dealing with the frustration of trying to come up with gift ideas, it doesn't have to be as impersonal as filling out a gift registry.
"For someone like me who is really into gift giving," said Jodi Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, "I will look at their wish list and I might not pull something off of [it] but I'll use the wish list as a springboard, as a catalyst for a different idea."
As an example, Smith suggests going to the bookstore and buying a biography of a gift recipient's favorite musician, if they have listed many CDs from that artist on their wish list.
But for people creating holiday wish lists, Smith warns not to be too eager about sharing them.
"If I create a wish list on a Web site, and then I e-mail the link to all my friends and relatives, that's a no-no," she said. "But if I create the wish list on my Web site, and then my grandmother calls and says 'What would you like for the holidays?' then I can send her the link."
Only check it twice, if you want to
Wish list service Web sites like Kaboodle.com, Wishlist.com, TheThingsIWant.com and even big retailers like Amazon.com offer their users and their users' friends free access to wish lists.
Once someone has established a list, these sites make it very easy to add merchandise. Often they incorporate downloadable "buttons" or "bookmarklets" that you keep on your browser, and click whenever you're on a Web page that has something you want. Wish list services also allow you to enter a URL, and their software crawls the page of the URL, gathering all the pertinent information, like pictures, price and where to buy online.
Many online wish list sites offer what White calls a "universal wish list," that allows users to select items from any Web page on the Internet to put on their wish list, as well as the ability to write in items that can't be found there, like handmade items.
Once a wish list is created, the people allowed to view and interact with it can choose which gift to purchase. In many cases they can buy the gift online directly from the wish list interface. Visitors can also leave a note for other prospective gift-buyers, letting them know that a particular gift has been purchased, much like the way wedding registries work.
'Buy it now' capability helps customers and retailers
Not surprisingly, the ability to easily buy gifts from online retailers is something stores with a Web presence are interested in as well as holiday shoppers. Wish list sites offer their software to online retailers in addition to providing services to Internet users.
"I believe that both the consumer and the retailer have made wish lists popular," Kraemer said. "Certainly its seed came from the bridal registry concept, and the need for individuals to put items in their wish list or bridal registry from any number of retailers that may be selling products online. The prospect of putting something in your wish list is a lot better than putting it in a shopping cart.
"Putting something in your wish list is an emotional investment without any monetary repercussions, so individuals put a lot of things in wish lists, and that works well for gift buyers who want to buy presents through the holiday season. It also works well for retailers who want to learn a little something about the people who are shopping on their site," he said.
One of the earliest online retailers to offer their customers wish list capabilities, Amazon.com incorporated wish lists onto their site in 1997 and has since hosted hundreds of thousands of wish lists.
"Our customers are very active and the community around wish lists is pretty significant," said Craig Burman from Amazon.com. "Our customers certainly love to talk about the features that we've got. The simple fact that you can share these lists, talk about them, pass them on, is something the customers like to do," he said.
But etiquette expert Smith advises parents to help children if they want to create online wish lists.
"This is a really tricky etiquette/parenting dilemma," she said.
"Gift giving shouldn't be an end unto itself. Whether you're Jewish, Christian, whether you celebrate Kwanzaa, the gift giving is an accoutrement to the deeper meaning of the holiday, and so I encourage parents, first, before you start picking out wish lists, to have a little discussion about what the holiday means, and to also understand your child."
Smith also points out that younger children do not have the reality-based understanding of older children and teenagers. "So a 5 year old -- when they see that the picture goes into their wish list -- may think that this toy is now theirs. The parent needs to couch that so that the child understands that they are choosing things that they may get, but they also might not get, so that the child isn't hugely disappointed," she said.
Users have their own wishes
Thanks to the immediate feedback the Internet allows, customers have helped shape the product over the years.
"As a smaller company we rely heavily on trying to find the right solution the first time, but often coming close enough so that consumer feedback ultimately leads us down the right path. So it's very much a community-type project," said Kraemer.
Aside from sorting ability and wanting to move entries from one list to another, White says users of TheThingsIWant.com have always been vocal about their needs and wants regarding wish lists.
"We learned a lot about the flexibility of what people wanted to use it for. The next thing we learned pretty quick was that people wanted to have links and things from their blogs, to be able to show their wish lists on their blog at Blogger.com and Myspace and things like that. And we've accommodated most of those sort of issues," he said.
Users can add merchandise to their wish list from all over the Web on a "universal" wish list site.