Many years ago, my beloved wife explained to me the difference between "shopping" and "buying". As is the case with many men, I suppose, I'd always assumed they were pretty much the same thing. I've learned.
Over the years, I've worked up a pretty good system for handling Christmas. Since I've done most of my buying online for years, I get lots and lots of catalogs. I pile them up. As fall drifts into winter I'll find times to sit down and go through them, looking for gift ideas. As I come across things that I think the people I'm buying for might like, I put them into a spreadsheet -- item, vendor, cost. This is the shopping part.
Once I've worked my way through all of the catalogs, I go back to the spreadsheet and, depending on what my budget is for each person, I figure out what I actually want to get, and then go online and put in the orders. That's the buying part. I always have more ideas than funds, so if I find that something is out of stock or if some website's interface is too annoying to be bothered with, I've always got a backup plan.
The vendors I buy from regularly email me relentlessly, particularly at this time of year, but I'm very glad that they also send their catalogs. Even the best websites are a poor substitute for a printed catalog when it comes to the shopping part. Flipping through a printed catalog and skimming the contents is a far more efficient process than trying to go through a store's entire stock on their website. If one knows exactly what one is looking for, then the web is a great way to do comparison shopping; but when one is just browsing, looking for gift ideas, the printed catalogs are far superior.
The technophiles are likely to say that it's just a matter of time until the online systems are just as browsable as the printed catalogs. I suppose that may be true, although I'm a little sceptical. More importantly, I wonder what the point is? It's another facet of the "future of books" discussion -- if we think that we can replicate every important feature of a printed book, then we think we should. But why? Print remains a great technology, wonderfully suited for many purposes. Everything doesn't have to be done online.
The final part of my Christmas routine, by the way, occurs somewhere around the 21st to the 23rd of the month, when I take a day to go out to the stores. By that time I've already done all of my major shopping, so I'm not really looking for anything specific, just hoping to run across that one additional cool item that'll light Lynn's eyes up. But I like the experience (in a moderate dose) of being out among the crowds and seeing how the stores are decorated and even listening to the cheesy Christmas music coming out of the bushes. It's another part of the total experience that can't be replicated online.