Every holiday season, numerous magazine features and digital guides are devoted to helping shoppers find the perfect gift for everyone on their lists. The hunt for useful and appealing gifts for family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances can be overwhelming. Ashley Bronczek and Candace Ourisman knew the struggle and wanted to help. Two and a half years ago, the friends founded Secretly Gifting, a concierge gifting service. Clients entrust them to shop for their gifts year-round.
Bronczek and Ourisman always suggest choosing gifts that match the recipient’s “passion points and interests.” But what if you don’t know the recipient very well?
Their advice is to “get one of your favorite things.” Expressing your own personal taste shows that you’re invested in the exchange, even if you’re not close with the recipient. Aim for high-quality items with thoughtful details that are within your budget. Think of items that will last past the holidays, and don’t forget to nicely wrap whatever you buy.
Ultimately, you want whoever receives the gift to like and use it, but there are some presents that will get more use than others. During the holidays, most people can count on receiving multiple mugs, scented candles or wine bottles — and they probably don’t need more. Items such as scented perfumes, lotions and winter accessories could be too personal. Something that doesn’t match the recipient’s specific taste will probably sit in a closet unused or be returned.
With that in mind, here are some common gifts that aren’t as good as you think, and suggestions for what to buy instead.
The candle craze shows no sign of burning out (ha), which could explain why we often end up with drawers of random holiday-scented candles. “What we don’t want to see happen is to have that be the fourth candle that person receives,” Ourisman said. “It’s a nice gesture, but a forgettable gesture.” If you do give one, Ourisman and Bronczek suggest picking your favorite scent and including a personal note to the recipient about why you like it.
Or you could pick something aromatic and useful but more thought out. A high-quality olive oil in a beautiful bottle looks good on the counter and can help make delicious meals for family and friends. “It’s attractive and they’ll think of you when they use it,” Ourisman said.
Suggested swap: Frantoio Muraglia Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Striped ($40 at williams-sonoma.com)
Does your recipient really need another mug? “If you’re giving a mug that says ‘Merry Christmas’ or something general, I don’t think that has the impact that you necessarily want it to make,” Ourisman said. “Plus, some people are very particular about their mugs and might like to use the same one.” Unless it’s something particularly meaningful, Ourisman and Bronczek suggest skipping a mug for another reusable item that won’t just sit on a shelf.
“We love gifts that are utilitarian but also have a lot of personality,” Ourisman said. A sturdy tote looks a lot better than a paper bag and cuts down on plastic waste. Choose something that won’t break or tear. Fun patterns, colors or customization make the gift extra special; Ourisman suggests getting the family’s name appliquéd or embroidered on the bag.
Suggested swap: Apolis Customizable Market Tote ($68 at store.apolisglobal.com)
“You want to surprise and delight somebody, so the last thing you want to accomplish when you give a gift is for it to be forgettable,” Ourisman said. To make a bottle of wine a more effective gift, pick up the recipient’s favorite or something that feels more personal than the first bottle you saw on the way to the checkout aisle. For example, a wine with a name or label that’s the recipient’s last name, or a bottle from a country they recently visited.
Making a cocktail is a more active experience than pouring a glass of wine. A kit of cocktail blenders, bitters or other mix-ins is endlessly customizable and brings multiple people in on the fun. Someone could bring the kit out at a dinner party or even a special night at home. You could even have a mix delivered right to your recipient’s doorstep during a party.
Suggested swap: Small Craft Liquors Cocktail Blends ($35 at smallcraftliquors.com)
Dipping temperatures require hats, gloves and scarves, and gift sets containing all three usually line department store shelves this time of year, sometimes at a discount. But a low-quality set doesn’t do much good, because it’s unlikely someone will wear these items if they’re not warm. A zany pattern might limit your giftee’s ability to match it to their wardrobe, too; your gift might unintentionally turn into a gag. Plus, the recipient could already have a set they like and use if they live somewhere with harsh winters. “Go with a company that’s tried and true and does its job,” Ourisman said. Neutral patterns and colors (Brocznek likes camel) ensure that your giftee can match the set to whatever they’re wearing.
A throw blanket adds coziness and warmth and would be especially useful for someone who lives in a cold climate. Because it will probably stay at home, the pressure is off to match to the recipient’s fashion taste. The key to making gifting special is to pick an item that’s elevated, the gift concierges say, though this doesn’t have to mean more expensive. Faux fur, for example, feels more luxurious than a flimsier material. If you know the giftee well, adding an element of personalization such as a monogram is a sweet gesture.
Suggested swap: Pretty Rugged Silver Fox Faux Fur Lap Blanket ($150 at prettyrugged.com)
Few people lack sweets during the holiday season, so don’t add to someone’s crowded pile of candies and cookies unless you give something special and interesting. If you’re going to add to the pile, make it count by baking a special tray of cookies or picking a treat that’s elevated from something you’d find in the drugstore aisle. A riff on an old favorite from a small or local bakery works; Ourisman and Brocznek point to “Mookies,” a macaron-cookie combo, from Dana’s Bakery (one of their go-tos) as an example of an unusual sweet.
Suggested swap: Dana’s Bakery Funfetti Mookies ($25 for box of five at danasbakery.com)
Scented perfumes or lotions
Gifting a scent is a kind, intimate move, but “the margin for error is wide,” Ourisman said, because of how personal they are. Ourisman and Brocznek advise against this route unless you’re very familiar with the recipient’s taste or are buying a specific item you know they want. Even a seemingly less intimate gift in this same vein, such as holiday-themed lotion sets, can be tricky because their use depends on how much someone likes how they smell. The holiday season isn’t known for its olfactory restraint, and the manufactured smells of pine trees, candy canes or syrupy vanilla probably isn’t for everyone. Some people might have sensitivities to specific scents or ingredients, and quality matters most here because it’s going on someone’s skin.
Unless you know the recipient loves a certain scent, an unscented, high-quality product is the way to go. “I like the intention behind the products because it’s for somebody to relax and treat themselves, but pick a quality product and a neutral scent,” Ourisman said. She likes the Ultimate Strength Hand Salve from Kiehl’s, a well-known brand, which contains nourishing ingredients such as avocado, sesame and eucalyptus oils and a minimal scent. “Gift this with a fabulous pair of winter gloves for a decadent winter treat,” she said.
Suggested swap: Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve ($16 at kiehls.com)