HOW TO BE A GREAT GIFT GIVER Is it a skill that's learned? After talking to our favorite tastemakers and present givers, we've decided the answer is "yes." Follow their boiled-down advice and you may never again have to bear the hollow sound of a slightly baffled "thank you."
LISTEN AND LEARN The best way to identify the perfect gift is by listening to your loved ones. Does your cousin covet a pair of earrings? Is your sister obsessed with Paris? "A friend mentioned something about cowboys in passing," says Jessica Kerwin Jenkins, author of Encyclopedia of the Exquisite. "I tracked down an old pair of spurs, and when she opened the box, her eyes welled up." People drop hints unknowingly, designer Rachel Roy notes: "Everyone tells you what they want in their own way."
KEEP RECORDS Your PDA and planner are allies. "Whenever a friend or a family member mentions something, I add a note on my phone," says designer Maya A. Lake of Boxing Kitten. Lake's mom mentioned that she uses plastic wrap on her feet to lock in lotion before bed. "I wrote down that she needed supersoft socks, and when Mother's Day rolled around, I had a gift ready." For smartphone users, Michelle Madhok, online shopping expert and the founder of shefinds.com, recommends downloading the free app EverNote (evernote.com), which allows you to record voice memos and take snapshots.
SCOUR SALES By keeping an eye out for gifts, you'll have a stash of perfect items, beat the holiday madness and save money. Madhok scans clearance racks. "Your cousin won't care that you got that crystal bib necklace on sale," she says. Jenkins picks up quirky salt and pepper shakers and antique books on cocktail making to give as hostess gifts. Globe-trotting Roy collects unique presents whenever she's traveling.
REMEMBER THE THREE E'S Engraving, embossing and embroidering are inexpensive ways to transform any gift—say, a pair of pillowcases or a plastic guitar pick—into a luxury item. "A silver necklace or embossed paper, personalized with something particular— a design, their initials, a funny inside joke—tells a person that you took the time," says Jenkins, who loves the customizable stationery made by small letterpresses on etsy.com.
SPEND THE TIME Often, an afternoon with a loved one is the best gift imaginable. "I took my best friend to the Bodies exhibit in New York," Lake says. "We got to spend the day together." By taking someone to a show or a museum, you give him or her a memory.
THINK "CONSUMABLE" A thoughtless gift may be worse than no gift at all. "Presents that merely take up space in someone's house are, in truth, burdens," Jenkins says. At a loss? Send something edible, like baked goods -- homemade (like these tasty bars) or store-bought. Especially during the holiday season, your gift will be quickly gobbled up rather than stashed in a closet.
WRAP IT UP It's no coincidence that the words "present" and "presentation" are connected. The wrapping is part of the gift experience -- and it doesn't have to be pricey to be chic. Roy uses simple brown paper with twine and asks her daughters to draw on the gifts. Madhok invests $3 in a spool of satin ribbon to make even the simplest bar of soap for a hostess look "seriously thoughtful."
WRITE A NOTE In a world of e-mail pings and text messages, a pen-and- ink sentiment is the ultimate sign of love. Roy makes sure to include a card with every present that she gives. "A handwritten note that accompanies a gift is the single most thoughtful gesture," she says.
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