Next time you could give the perfect present — without ever having to pick it out.
Wantful, a startup founded by serial entrepreneur John Poisson, aims to revamp the gift-giving process. By marrying tech and tradition, the service seeks to relieve shoppers from the burden of having to choose exactly what to buy that special someone, while preserving the sense that thought and care went into picking a present.
Wantful is part personalized pop-up shop, part gift certificate: The site helps the gift giver assemble a custom catalog of 16 different items that fall within a pre-defined price point; delivers the book -- electronically or as a physical copy -- to the recipient of the present; then ships to that person whichever product he or she chooses from the 16.
Poisson’s latest venture belongs to a burgeoning crop of startups encouraging us to outsource our decisions. From picking anniversary gifts to a nice pair of blue jeans, these web companies offer to save customers from the chore of choosing items themselves. They employ editors for the retail world, personal shoppers charged with sifting through hundreds of options, surfacing only the most delectable items and doing the dirty work of retail research.
Gift Side Story, for example, helps men pick presents for the women in their lives — the company’s tagline reads, "We do the work, you take the credit." Trunk Club spares men from clothes shopping by employing fashion consultants who work one-on-one with customers to hand-pick customized wardrobe selections that the men can keep, or return at their leisure. There’s even a new site to help people decide which politician they should vote for: ElectNext asks users to specify what issues they care about most and the solutions they would endorse, then tells them which candidate is their best match.
Wantful users must first answer a series of questions about the recipient of their gift, including age, gender, relation and occasion. The site uses the responses to determine which items to display. The company also poses several questions that aim to pinpoint the person’s interests and style — Is she a beer drinker or wine buff? Does she live to live or live to eat? What does her dream home look like? And, depending on the answers that are given, it recommends 16 items as a “starting point” for the book.
Users can explore alternatives and swap out other items, though exactly 16 items must be included and the pickings are slim in certain categories. For example, shoppers looking to spend $500 on a present for a close female friend may find they have just a dozen items from which to choose.
Though it’s online-only and backed by tech industry heavyweights including Foursquare co-founder Dennis Crowley, Path CEO Dave Morin and One Kings Lane co-founder Alison Pincus, Wantful relies more on human touch then tech to help its users select gifts, Poisson says.
"We’re not doing it for you. We’re helping to facilitate the process," said Poisson. "We’re not saying ‘press a button,’ and we’ll buy a present for your wife. Nobody wants that, including a husband. That ends up being impersonal and transactional and loses the value of gift giving."
The site has largely foregone the advanced algorithms used by companies like Facebook and Google to personalize content and Wantful instead relies on old-fashioned tools like good taste and wrapping paper to deliver a personal, and memorable, touch.
"This is not so much a tech play as it is bringing together a bunch of individual experiences that architect an experience for you," Poisson explains.
To Poisson, creating that experience begins with a hunt for excellent products that are high-quality and hard to find. The nearly 1,000 items offered by Wantful, which range in price from $30 to $500, have been sourced from more than 200 vendors, including a jeweler who makes handmade earrings in New York, a premium coffee roaster in San Francisco and a Louisville bakery run by three "talented artisans."
"We’re going after really small products that are interesting, hard to find, and have a great story behind them. These are not the things you’d find if you walked into a department store or went on Amazon," said Poisson. "This is absolutely essential to getting the experience right and we spend a tremendous amount of effort sourcing products, developing relationships and curating the set of products we offer."
What sets Wantful apart from most tech startups is also its affinity for paper and the postal service. Recognizing that an email can’t replicate the fun of unwrapping a gift, Wantful will, for a $5 fee, print and ship a customized book that showcases the possible presents the gift giver has selected.
The full-color Wantful catalog arrives wrapped in thick Washi paper and encased in a black, engraved envelope, packaging that looks to be inspired by the time Poisson spent in Japan after leaving Shutterfly in 2010. The multiple layers and folds prolong the process of opening the gift and set the book apart from most mailed items.
"We wanted to restore that aspect of gift giving where you have something you get to unveil and hold in your hand,” said Poisson. "As we start moving away from magazines and catalogs, these tangible experiences are still incredibly compelling for people … It ends up being as compelling or more compelling than actual gift I choose."
Wantful ultimately offers a service, not a bargain, and users may find themselves overpaying on some items in exchange for the convenience and choice the site provides. Wantful’s selection of items in the $150 category included a leather bag that a gift-giver could have purchased online from the original manufacturer for $136 — if, that is, he or she was sure about the choice.
It also remains to be seen how the etiquette of sending a Wantful will evolve. Once the novelty wears off, will it be seen as little more than a souped-up gift certificate?
While Poisson maintains that Wantful is, at most, a distant cousin to gift cards, the people receiving the 16-item booklets might not feel the same way. After all, the service still betrays the gift giver's inability to decide, and restricting someone's choice to a handful of items could seem personal to some, while limiting to others.