E.J. Zgodny was just beginning to think about what to buy his wife, Robin, for Christmas this year when an email entitled ”Robin’s Wish List” popped up in his inbox.
The email, from a manager of the Caravan boutique in New York, listed a number of items that Mr. Zgodny’s wife had selected, along with photos and a short note about each.
”The Pintuck Dress looked amazing on her and she loved the fabric and fit!” gushed Jessica O’Neill, Caravan’s manager, in the email. ”Maybe Allison or your mother-in-law can get her the Pearl Neck mini?” a dress that sells for $353, Ms. O’Neill suggested.
Retail wish lists are getting more invasive this holiday season. In a bid to squeeze more sales out of the gift registries and wish lists that many customers create, some retailers have started programs that recommend, sometimes not so gently, exactly what relatives and friends should buy this Christmas.
Searle, a chain of high-end boutiques in New York, is phoning husbands and grandmothers to tell them about the $478 silk dresses and $298 velvet scarves their loved ones have put on their ”Dear Searle” lists. Bluemercury, a chain of 26 beauty boutiques, is inviting customers in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Princeton, N.J., among other places, to provide names of relatives and friends the store can call to suggest gifts.
Online retailer Net-a-Porter.com, which sells women’s designer clothes and accessories, has gone a step further, offering videos that are emailed to husbands and boyfriends, telling them what the sender wants. First, the sender fills out a questionnaire, in which they pick from a list of pet names for the recipient, ranging from ”Honey Bunny” to ”Hot Stuff” to ”Boo Boo.” They can also select descriptors of the potential gift-giver, such as ”macho” or ”commanding.”
Then an email is sent to the designated recipient, featuring a flirtatious blond woman called ”Santa’s Helper.” She advises the viewer that ”It’s time we had a serious talk, Honey Bunny” (or whatever the selected endearment). The helper says the sender is ”lucky, isn’t she, to have a man like you?” and highlights a gift the sender has picked out, sometimes providing a link to her wish list. ”Let’s face it,” the virtual helper says, ”if she’s happy, you’re happy.”
Some gift givers, at a loss to figure out what their loved ones want, say the emails and calls are helpful. Others are finding them just plain annoying.
”I’m a very busy person. I don’t need any more calls,” says Martha Friedman, a retired bacteriologist from New York. When a salesperson from the Searle boutique called her recently, Ms. Friedman said she was going to hold off on buying the $498 cashmere turtleneck sweater her granddaughter had picked out for her to buy. ”Since I’m paying for it, I want to see it,” Ms. Friedman says, adding that she plans to go shopping with her granddaughter herself.
Steven Anderson, a financial advisor in Minnesota, says he was surprised when a salesperson from Minneapolis store The Romeo & Juliet Shop called him at work to tell him about a holiday wish list his wife had set up.
”It created this sense of, ‘You’ve got to get this done, dude – come on!”’ says Mr. Anderson, 32, who got the call last Christmas season. ”I thought, ‘Wow, I’m really going to get in trouble now if I don’t deliver the silk pajamas or the nice little pashmina she picked.”
Despite Mr. Anderson’s initial shock, the ploy was effective. He ended up buying his wife all six items on her wish list, including the $130 cashmere pashmina shawl and $105 silk pajamas.
Tiki Barber, the retired New York Giants player, says he welcomes any help he can get trying to figure out what to buy his wife, Ginny. Mr. Barber, 32, is still haunted by a gift he gave her six Christmases ago. ”I was walking by a Louis Vuitton store and went out on a limb and just went in and bought her a purse,” he says. ”And she had it already. I was kind of like, ‘This is why I don’t go shopping for you – because I don’t know what to get!”’ Mr. Barber, whose wife is setting up a wish list at Searle, said he doesn’t mind that the store plans to call him.
It’s that kind of response that’s driving many retailers to offer the service. Stores that convince people to create wish lists often end up fostering loyalty with the list-writer and the gift buyer, says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for market-researcher NPD Group. In an August survey of 64,000 shoppers, 19 percent said they had set up wish lists with retailers at one time, up from 11 percent in 2005.
Some retailers have informally offered the service for years. Bloomingdale’s 40 personal shoppers have had customers say, ”In case Santa Claus wants to know, I’d like this,” says Marian Goodman, operating vice president, director of shopping services. The personal shopper then contacts the customer’s significant other and passes on the tip. ”It helps us develop a relationship with the customer,” she says. So far this season, customers have asked to pass on hints about items ranging from a $799 Nespresso coffeemaker to $5,200 Roberto Coin earrings.
Marla Malcolm Beck, owner of Bluemercury beauty boutiques, says the company first tried the tactic last year at its Philadelphia store, where 50 customers were asked to pick out items and provide contact information for a gift-giver. Each gift-giver contacted ended up spending between $1,000 and $5,500, she says. ”What do you get someone who has everything? The truth is, you should get them exactly what they want,” she says. ”If you try to second-guess them, it doesn’t work out.”
Etiquette experts nevertheless cringe at the thought of stores pestering gift givers.
”You’re essentially sending someone to ask, ‘Hi, could you go get me this, please?”’ says Anna Post, the great-great granddaughter of Emily Post and an etiquette specialist with the Emily Post Institute, of Burlington, Vt., which produces books and seminars on manners. ”A gift should be about the relationship between the giver and the receiver. When you have a middleman like that, it becomes a business transaction.”
Some of those who sign up for the services disagree, arguing that the store as intermediary makes the suggestion appear less pushy. Lisa Tilstone, a 24-year-old market researcher in New York, says having a third party call her father and dictate her wish list serves the dual purpose of eliminating his potential objections and helping her get what she wants.
”If it’s someone else telling him about it, he won’t respond like, ‘Oh, that’s too expensive,”’ says Ms. Tilstone, who created a wish list with the Caravan boutique. ”This time, he may be more likely to go in and look at my items without passing judgment.”
Rachelle Anderson, who sent her husband the suggestion about silk pajamas, says she’s simply trying to help him. ”The first time Steve showed up at my door, he brought me those flowers you get at the gas station that are wrapped in plastic and have the $3.99 sticker on them,” she says. ”That’s what he comes up with on his own.” She believes that in recent years, he’s spent weeks agonizing over what to buy her for Christmas. Mr. Anderson says he’s a ”procrastinator” when it comes to shopping, but does spend time trying to figure out what his wife would like.
Robin Ross, Mr. Zgodny’s wife, says she was tired of returning gifts from her husband that she didn’t like. ”I don’t want to pretend to like a gift that I don’t,” says Ms. Ross, 39, who’s been married for six years to Mr. Zgodny, a 40-year-old assistant vice president at a bank. She signed on to have the Caravan boutique notify him because ”there’s something nice about that, instead of me being presumptuous.”
Though she doesn’t know it yet, Ms. Ross will be receiving exactly what she wants this Christmas. Two weeks after the store emailed him, Mr. Zgodny went there and plunked down $353 for the pearl neck mini dress.