Where, and how, to find unique gifts this holiday season

Take advantage of social media, shopping portals and credit card rewards to find, and pay for, original presents your loved ones will want to keep

Constance Sommer
Personal Finance Writer
Writes about personal finance, health care and other topics.

Unique holiday gifts guide

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It's that time of year again – eggnog and twinkling lights and the giving of gifts. For the lazy, the rushed, the unimaginative, sure, there are always gift cards. But what if you want to shine this gift-giving season? What if you want to be the one that gives the gifts your loved ones adore – only, you have no idea where to start?

Don’t panic, shopping experts say. Instead, put on your detective’s cap and get busy. With a little bit of forethought and research, you can be the superhero of the giving season. Here's how.

See related: Merry holiday shopping: 6 ways to cut your costs now

Finding unique holiday gifts: 7 quick tips

  1. Head to social media and explore your friends' and family's interests.
  2. If they're not on social media, think about what they enjoy.
  3. If you have a teenager on your list, tech is usually a good bet.
  4. Consider gifting an experience – especially if you have millennials in your inner circle.
  5. Take advantage of special offers for credit card holders.
  6. Maximize gift purchasing with credit cards.
  7. Where to find unique gifts beyond the mall and Amazon.

Head to social media

You already catch up with friends on Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook. Maybe you even get your news there as well. Now you can use these sites to search for gifts, too.

Scroll through the feed of your picky best friend, for instance, and just take note of what she’s posting.

“Social media is a great place to start,” said Michelle Madhok, founder and CEO of SheFinds, a curated style and beauty site for women. “People are giving out so much information about themselves right now.”

Pay attention to details, said Cynde Cassel, a co-owner of Star Treatment Gift Baskets in Los Angeles, who procures gifts for corporate and celebrity clients. Is your friend always wearing scarves? Fancy earrings? Maybe she travels a lot, so you could get her something travel-oriented. Or, if she’s posting pictures of her prize tomatoes, consider something for her garden, Cassel said.

“A big story can be told by looking through pictures,” she said.

If you’re buying for a teenager, go beyond his own Instagram posts to see who he’s following. If he’s following apparel maker Supreme, or Nike, or if the celebrities he follows wear their clothing and gear, then he might like something from those retailers, too, Cassel said.

See related: 'FOMO,' 'likes' and card debt: How Facebook might lead you to overspend

What if your elderly uncle isn’t on social media?

Think about what your recipient enjoys. Madhok’s father likes Scotch. “I found a unique kind of Scotch that has a great story attached to it, that he brings out each time he has guests now,” she said. Her mother loves maple candies, so Madhok scours the internet to find new varieties her mother hasn’t yet tried.

Or maybe you know your friend or relative is involved with a charitable cause. Perhaps someone close to them suffers from Alzheimer’s, or they’re a cancer survivor. Consider donating to a foundation in their name, Cassel said.

See related: Charitable donation by credit card gives quick tax deduction

"Social media is a great place to start. People are giving out so much information about themselves right now."

I’m not on social media – and I’m buying for a teenager!

For boys, Cassel said, tech is always a good bet. If he has an iPhone, maybe he’d like a pair of AirPods, the high-end wireless headphones. Or, if he has a favorite sports team or pastime, a hoodie emblazoned with that logo could be a hit, she said.

For her own two teenage girls, Cassel defaults to jewelry that she buys at the jewelry mart in downtown Los Angeles. “I’d rather spend $200 to $300 on something she’ll take care of than more junk from whatever trendy store they’re shopping at now,” she said.

See related: Top 10 creative ways to wrap gift cards

Consider gifting an experience

“Millennials are definitely into experiences as opposed to items,” Madhok said. One relatively inexpensive place to look for such things, she said, is Groupon: think painting classes, or escape rooms.

If you’ve got a friend who’s drowning in caregiving, either for young children or an elderly relative, this might be a great time to purchase a pampering experience. “Get her a massage, or a mani-pedi,” Cassel said. “She needs time for herself.”

If you’re after something a little more elaborate, begin by considering what your recipient likes to do, said Bobby Augst, executive vice president of Cloud 9 Living, a Broomfield, Colorado company whose stated mission is “to create lifelong memories through amazing experiences.”

If someone’s an adrenaline seeker, gift them an experience like a white-water rafting trip or ziplining, he said. If they’re an epicure, maybe they’d enjoy a wine-tasting excursion.

Don’t forget, however, to take their location into account. “My parents live in Washington, D.C. so it’s probably not good to give them something they might love, but that’s in Florida,” he said.

Also, look into who is offering the experience, he said. Does the white-water rafting company have all the right certifications and qualifications to run such a trip? How long has the company been in business? Are there any awards they have won? “It’s worth taking the time and checking,” he said.

Experiences as gifts go over best with someone who’s at least somewhat adventurous, he said. “If they want to get out there and try and do new things, for those people, experiences are a surefire thing,” he said.

See related: How to pay for experiences without going into debt

If you've got a friend who's drowning in caregiving, either for young children or an elderly relative, this might be a great time to purchase a pampering experience.

Take advantage of special offers for credit card holders

Many major issuers – from Chase and American Express to Citi and even Marriott and SPG – offer cardholders exclusive experiences that they can “pay” for using points.

In November, for instance, Chase Sapphire cardholders could redeem 585,000 points for a Sundance Film Festival package that included five nights’ accommodation, admission to exclusive movie screenings and invitations to post-screening receptions at the January event in Utah.

Marriott, meanwhile, runs redemption auctions, such as one in November for two VIP seats at a Dec. 16, Atlanta Falcons’ football game, plus admission to a sponsors tailgate party and the opportunity to go onto the field after the game to kick a field goal.

See related: 7 tips when redeeming points for a rewards 'experience'

Maximize gift purchasing with credit cards

While you’re filling up your shelves with gifts, you can also be using your credit cards to rack up points or earn cash back from purchases.

“A lot of people forget, or they go to the store they want to shop at without thinking about opportunities for saving, or earning something back for shopping,” said consumer saving expert Andrea Woroch. “There are ways you can double down on your savings.”

Sites like Ebates and Swagbucks offer users a range of cash back on purchases, with the amount varying from retailer to retailer.

Meanwhile, American Express card users can peruse Amex Offers for deals that can earn them extra points when they shop with their Amex card.

Many Chase cards include access to the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, where customers can shop online and receive bonus points for their purchases at a range of merchants – and Chase cardholders can now, too, take advantage of specific offers through the Chase mobile app.

One strategy to maximize points and dollars spent: use Ultimate Rewards points or cash back to purchase gift cards through the portal, often at a savings, said Farnoosh Torabi, a Chase Financial Education Ambassador. Then use those cards to buy actual gifts.

In the end, the best gift, the unique gift that someone will adore, is the gift he or she really wants. And the best way to discover that is by paying attention.

Listen to “what they’re saying, what they might need,” Cassel said. “A lot of times, things are revealed in conversation.”

See related: How to stack rewards to save big on purchases

Unique gifts beyond the mall and Amazon

Check out these sites for gifts to wow your loved ones:

  • Uncommon Goods says it offers “cool and unusual gifts for any occasion.” Gifts for sale in November included a drinking glass etched with the map of a U.S. city, a year of gratitude kit, and a kid-friendly construction plate and utensils.
  • The Grommet says it is “the place to discover and shop innovative new products from local Makers and small businesses.” Products it says it helped launch include fitness tracker Fitbit, smartphone case OtterBox, and fizzy water maker SodaStream. Items on sale at the site in November included a wireless photo and video printer, a hand-embroidered nightgown and a plastic sword that makes kid-sized bubbles.
  • Over at ShopStyle, you can browse clothing, shoes, accessories, home goods, toys and beauty products from around the web. Or, if you know what you’re looking for, you can search for specific categories and find items from designers large and small.


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Updated: 12-15-2018