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Kids' holiday gift registries: practical or grabby?

Dec. 17, 2013 at 1:13 PM ET

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"Dear Santa, please note that I am registered at the following websites this Christmas. Feel free to click the links to make it easier for you and the elves this holiday season."

Behold, the Santa letter of the future.

We’re used to wedding and baby registries, and with the prevalence of e-commerce and social media, it was bound to come sooner or later: the holiday toy registry. But is the trend practical and helpful for family and friends, or is it just plain grabby?

No one can argue that gift registries make gift giving easier. These days, all you need is a smartphone.

This holiday season, Toys “R” Us designed the “Wish List Wizard App,” which turns parents’ phones into a gift scanner. Meanwhile, parents can use tools such as Hukkster, which helps consumers track products and receive sales alerts, and will also let you share a gift list on social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.

While some parents will take all the holiday season help they can get, others think gift registries foster entitlement and teach children that Christmas is about getting everything on a list.

Maria Guido, an Orlando, Fla., blogger and mother to a 6-month-old girl and 3-year-old boy, finds holiday gift registries excessive and a little presumptuous.

“Even if I had a huge family, I wouldn’t want my child being showered with so many gifts that we’d need a registry to sort them all,” she says. “The fact that this isn’t regarded as excessive just proves that we all are so used to consuming so much.” 

As she points out: What is the worst case? That your kid gets a gift they aren’t crazy about? “Big deal,” Guido says.

But it may not be all about the child. For many adult gift givers, holiday toy registries take away stress on their end — especially if they don’t have kids of their own and find a gift card too impersonal.

“Nobody likes to arrive with something a child already has or the same thing someone else brought,” says Stephanie Licata, a certified personal and business coach in Edgewater, N.J., who often finds herself stumped when it comes to buying her cousins’ children Christmas presents. “The more specific a registry could be, the better,” she says. “If they could group some items as stocking stuffers, or rank items in order of preference, that would be extremely helpful.”

Gift-giving anxiety among clients is real, according to Ron Reimann, president of Minneapolis, Minn., based Giftster, a social networking gift-giving site. Parents, he says, get stuck in the middle during the holidays — fielding emails from relatives about what a child wants this year or already has. Online registries simplify the season for families; they don’t change the dynamic of the holidays.

Children have been writing Christmas lists for ages, says Ron Lieber, author of the forthcoming book, “The Opposite of Spoiled.” It’s unclear that adding an electronic component to the process is going to somehow tip kids over the edge. For parents, Lieber sees real value in holiday registries.

“Last year, my 8-year old daughter asked for a certain pair of pajamas,” he says. “She ended up getting the PJ’s twice because we didn’t have a central list. So who ends up returning them, getting the boxes and the tape, or getting in the car and driving to the mall? Parents, of course.”

Lieber, however, cautions that some relatives, especially older ones, may be put off by the idea. “Holiday gift giving is all tied up with feelings,” he says. “Some people take enormous pride in picking the perfect gift and might feel deflated or even insulted if they are denied the opportunity.”

Personal feelings aside, it turns out “thoughtfulness” comes at a price, and ignoring a gift registry to pick something out on your own costs more than time and effort. It costs society a lot of money.

Joel Waldfogel, economics professor at the University of Minnesota, studies “gift mismatch” — the difference between what a gift-giver pays for an item and the amount a receiver values the present. Waldfogel calculates that the U.S. economy loses 14 billion dollars every holiday season from people choosing “thoughtful” gifts that aren’t necessarily what the other person would have bought himself.

“Gift registries for anyone, but probably even more as kids age and become teenagers, close the gap between the amount that you are spending on someone and how much they will value or enjoy it,” says Waldfogel.

“Online holiday lists can certainly be helpful in our time-crunched society,” agrees “Everyday Etiquette: How to Navigate 101 Common and Uncommon Social Situations” author, Patricia Rossi. “But we don’t need to go broadcasting where our child is registered with a megaphone.” Rossi does not suggest posting lists to social media sites, and prefers that parents wait until friends or family ask before sharing registry details.

Jacoba Urist is a health and lifestyle reporter in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @JacobaUrist 

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