BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Online holiday shopping is a great way to dodge parking lot traffic, pointy elbows and pepper spray at big retailers, but it's also a good way to help out the little guys this season.The 38% of American consumers who did their holiday shopping online in 2004 has grown to nearly 40% this year, according to surveys from the National Retail Federation. Meanwhile, the percentage of those shunning online shopping altogether has dropped from 23.5% to 18% during that span. Free shipping offers and online coupons help, but so do mobile devices that make it easy to place an online order without being tethered to the desk or couch. ComScore ( SCOR - Get Report) is already predicting that the $32.6 million spent online last holiday season will grow this year by 15%, to $37.6 million. Shoppers have given them little reason to think otherwise by increasing their online Thanksgiving spending 18% from $407 million in 2010 to $479 million this year. Black Friday shopping put 26% more stuffing in Santa's sack this year by boosting online spending from $648 million last year to $816 milliion this turkey day. Amazon ( AMZN - Get Report) saw the biggest boost, with 50% more visitors than any other site, but Wal-Mart ( WMT - Get Report), Best Buy ( BBY - Get Report), Target ( TGT - Get Report) and Apple ( AAPL - Get Report) all rounded out the Top 5. Even Cyber Monday, a retail relic from days when sneaking purchases past the bosses over the office T line was the only way to shop online without waiting out dialup busy signals, managed to pack a bigger punch this year. Cubicle-confined deal seekers spent 22% more than they did last year, driving sales to $1.3 billion from $1 billion. Through last week alone, Americans spent $18.7 billion online this holiday season and increased early holiday spending 15% from the same span in 2010. The big retailers still get a huge chunk of the holiday haul, but there are thousands of connected little corner shops shunning $200 game consoles and $30 printers in favor of $25-to-$50 stocking stuffers. The following are 10 examples of niche sites that are the best place to find misfit toys this side of a stop-motion animated holiday musical special:
A shop specializing in recycled materials doesn't let too many ideas go to waste. From bowls made of bicycle chains ($78), mirrors set in sprockets ($30) or handlebar candelabras ( handleabras? $58) for your favorite pant-leg-rolling commuter or vinyl record bowls ($26), clocks ($38) or mirrors ($100) for that crate-digging music fan, Hipcycle manages to "upcycle" something for just about every species of obsessive geek. While tumblers made of Perrier and Coke bottles ($30 to $40) have a bit of pop-art aesthetic, items sourced from less likely scraps such as railroad ties for hooks, corks and toilet paper holders (each $22) and tires molded into baskets and floor mats ($20 to $29) leave a more lasting impression on the recipient and his or her surroundings.
Grammar school teachers and their desk drawers across America are likely ecstatic about the slow demise of novelty shops and the end of whoopie cushions, wacky whistles and fake vomit. Sites such as Vat19, however, wipe the smug smirks off their sallow, aged faces by loading up on Q-Man Mini magnet men ($3.99 to $4.99) to stick to desks and lockers, globs of "Magnetic Thinking Putty" ($14.99) to smear on various other surfaces and giant, three-pound, 4,000-calorie gummi worms ($27.99) to keep them wired. Though giant gummi products including five-pound, 6,100-calorie giant gummi bears ($29.99 to $35.99), half-pound gummi bears on sticks ($9.99 to $11.99) and six packs of nearly three-inch-high gummi bears ($11.99) are among the more popular offerings, there's plenty for grown-up delinquents, too. The older folks get to turn their expired, demagnetized or maxed-out holiday credit cards into guitar picks with a handy pick punch ($24.99), make microwave popcorn without declaring chemical warfare on the entire office with a microwave corn popper ($20.99) and tote their beers much as marsupials carry their young with help from a beer pouch hoodie ($29.99 to $34.99). If shopped-out adults crave a gummi treat of their own that they won't have to share with kids, try bringing gummi shot glasses ($12.99) to the first post-holiday parent-teacher conferences -- just to make sure that "good will toward men" holiday spirit extends until summer.
Unlike the rest of the sites on this list, TweetBookz serves only one function: to put your or your loved ones' Twitter tweets into book form. We kid you not. Those willing to part with $20 for a softcover or $30 for a hard-bound copy can put up to 200 tweets onto pulp. The folks behind it have also signed up director Kevin Smith ( Clerks, Chasing Amy, Red State) for a project that produces book versions of podcasts, but thus far Smith's material is the only work that's made the leap to paper. The one drawback, other than turning your exchanges into a self-published version of Sh*t My Dad Says , is that gift recipients have to make the book themselves. Getting a gift certificate and making your own may beat having someone else troll your tweets and revise your life, but we're still guessing the grandkids are going to wonder decades from now why you could only write 140 characters at a time.
Do not deny the inner nerd. There's a part of every former Donkey Kong and Street Fighter joystick jockey that thinks Apple's iPad would be a sweet game machine if it only had its own wood-paneled tabletop arcade cabinet ($69). There's a tiny part of the Star Wars fanboy's brain that thinks Han Solo totally looked like a chocolate bar when Jabba froze him in carbonite and wondered what that chocolate bar ($11.99) would taste like. Then again, there are die-hard followers of Showtime's Dexter who get hungry every time Michael C. Hall makes breakfast during the opening credits and totally wants to start cooking in the serial killer's stab room apron ($19.99). Whether it's something as small as a Star Trek Enterprise pizza slicer or as infinite as a portable game console that can play downloadable files of every Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis or SNK NEO-GEO game ever made, this site is the bottomless pit of pop culture where it can all be found.
If you're in Massachusetts, Nevada, Texas or West Virginia, we're sorry, but your teetotaling state legislature won't let people give you the gift of booze this season. For everyone else, DrinkUpNY can help stuff an old-fashioned fan's stockings with travel packs of bitters ($19.99), pint-sized pocket flasks ($14.99) or classic mixologist texts such as Harry McElhone's 1927-vintage Barflies And Cocktails ($30.99) and David A. Embury's The Fine Art Of Mixing Drinks. Their stock of wines and spirits is extensive, but the shop simplifies shopping for amateur barkeeps by offering combos of ingredients for drinks as simple as the French 75 ($69.98) and black cat to concoctions as complex as an attention ($162.95) or a Oaxacan ($122.96). It's a simple way to get in the holiday spirit, but you may want to sit your local legislator down for a drink if he or she is letting archaic blue laws get in the way of your gift giving.
Art and design galleries are the secret weapon of the best holiday gift givers. Module R's use of functional, customizable forms makes it extraordinarily fun by giving gift recipients something to play with and move around as they please. Sometimes the concepts are as simple as Black + Blum's Time Square ($78) clock with a face that's both magnet board and blackboard surface so the user can scrawl notes on it or stick things to it as they please. Others such as Dagan Design's Puzzle Wine Rack ($69) require a bit more of a decorator's eye to make the pieces fit in their space. Many of their offerings tend to be big-picture home items such as modular stair runners ($160 to $350) and hanging sculpture such as Donald Rattner's books-and-boxes installation Jenny Holzer Has Nothing On Me ($6,500), but smaller items including the Lego-style BrickCase sleeve for Apple's iPhone ($20), Ball of Whacks magnetic equilateral quadratic puzzle ($35) and LED-style digital-font magnets ($16) are a bit easier to stuff in a stocking.
There are co-workers, old friends and distant relatives on each year's list that give holiday shoppers no idea what they're wishing for. When you don't really know someone or have drifted from someone over the years, the two best options are buying a gift card or going completely random. Those choosing the latter should really consider Mxyplyzyk, a site named in honor of Superman's nemesis Mr. Mxyzptlk whose biggest weakness was being tricked into saying his name backward. Yep, that's pretty random, but so is a twig magnifying glass ($20 to $28), a crow-shaped King Meghavarna tea light holder or a 3-D printed birdcage necklace or earrings ($45 or $55). Some of the site's gifts are lovely and functional -- including a bowl made of bottlecaps or Thomas Edison-style filament light bulbs and radio bulbs -- but head-scratchers such as a $120 porcelain squirrel lamp or $55 Portlandia-style pillow with a bird on it have the potential to be more memorable than anything acquaintances may have actually wanted.
The design-centric gift sites are great for original presents, but can be a bit all over the place. They can be all-business -- such as the Leuchtturm1917 series of writing, graphing and lab binders ($5 to $35) -- or as whimsical as Steph Mantis' series of animal butt magnets ($12.50). Our recommendation? Milk them for all they're worth. Want to give a fun little speedometer-painted bicycle bell ($19.50) as a stocking stuffer? Go for it. Just want a simple, unassuming cube alarm clock ($30) or the gear-and-cog clock from Will and Grace ($99) to mark the hours? That's cool, too. Whether you're there for a Yellow Submarine or Singin' In The Rain shower curtains ($19.50) or a suction holder to keep track of the shower soap ($10), Kikkerland's artists and designers tread that hair's breadth between practical and playful with panache. While fun-looking items such as a USB-port battleship ($22.50) can be useful, little wind-ups such as the spark-throwing Sparklz ($15) and long-legged Katita ($12) are some of the most creative toys in Santa's workshop.
While many museum shops are just itching to sell gift buyers some pretty little example of artistic form during the holiday season, the Boston-based Museum of Useful Things is strictly about function -- durable, old-school function. It sells vintage-style wall-mounted school house pencil sharpeners ($24) because they're really good at sharpening pencils without making a mess. It sells the giant rubber doorstop wedges ($8) your grandparents had because they're really good as holding doors open. They sell thumb-click tally counters ($18) because even at a time when Apple's Next Big Technology is obsolete after a year or so, some items in the analog world have been the best tool for the job for decades at a time. As wonderful as going to the dollar store every year or so to replace basic supplies can be, sometimes getting it right the first time by giving someone an aluminum dustpan ($12 or $18), wooden shoe shine brush ($26) or Post Office-grade canvas basket ($88) that will still be around by the time the recipient retires is a better bet. The next time a great-uncle wonders aloud during holiday dinner why they don't make things like they used to, drop an eight-ounce stainless steel Stanley hip flask in his lap and tell him they still are.
ModCloth really wants to get your friend or loved one into some retro frocks or vintage outfits for their their holiday parties, but they're not above throwing some toys into the mix to lure would-be Peggy Olsons into their wardrobe racks. The rockabilly clothes, cocktail dresses and little black dresses are great for holiday revelers already unleashing their inner Bettie Page, Betty Draper or Betty Boop, but someone with a more modern bent is going to need a little help stepping into the wayback machine. An iPhone case designed to look like a vintage Leica camera ($17.99), a stitchy old-school camera case for their digital point-and-click or SLR ($19.99) or a suburban basement-den wall clock ($69.99) may help ease that special someone into a begrudging acceptance of timeless style. -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.
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