Gift Guide: Last-Minute Gifts

Last Updated Dec 18, 2009 3:01 PM EST

When it comes gift buying, it makes sense to use the value investor's approach: Try to buy a dollar for 80 cents. We're not suggesting you go for the cheap items, just look for those that offer more value for your buck. Warren Buffett says he'd rather buy a great company at a fair price than a fair company at a great price. We took the same approach to this carefully curated list of gifts for the most important people on your list.

Give a Bottle to the Boss

If ever there were a year to include the boss on your holiday gift list, this would seem to be it. Yes, it might be seen as a shameless gambit to keep your job, but you can worry about that when unemployment is back in the single digits. Few gifts speak to your gratitude, the boss’ stature, and plummeting revenues with more eloquence than a fine single malt Scotch. It’s tempting to just play it safe and give one of the big brands, but we wanted to pick it up a notch.

We asked our expert to help us save money and look smarter, without sacrificing a dram of quality. “One of my favorite whiskies to suggest is the Highland Park, either the 12-year-old or 18-year-old,” says Noah Rothbaum, Editor in Chief of Liquor.com. “While most Scotch drinkers have heard of its sister distillery, Macallan, Highland Park is — for the moment at least — less well known and as a result considerably more affordable.”

Highland Park is distilled on the windswept northern tip of Scotland, where the North Sea meets the Atlantic. Rothbaum describes the malt, a favorite of bartenders and the fancy spirits set, as peaty yet sweet. Bottom line: You get a chance to subtly display your worldliness, and, if you’re lucky, a connoisseur will comment favorably the next time the boss throws a dinner party (Should that happen, you have a job for life.)

Need more ideas? Check out Liquor.com’s guide to under-the-radar whiskies. — Jack Otter

  • Highland Park 18 Years Old ($100)

When in Doubt, Buy Cashmere

In our experience, a trend can be good for retailers, or good for customers. Not both. So we had to overcome a bit of cognitive dissonance when the experts told us that department store private-label clothes were a great value. Were these the same private label clothes that trade magazine WWD called the “silver bullet” that had salvaged department store profits?

Yup, one and the same. And the backstory is fairly simple: “They are eliminating the middle man,” explains John Mather, a stylist and former fashion director at Esquire. Mather says that, decades ago, private labels had cachet as shoppers tended to be loyal to a store. “You shopped at Paul Stewart, or Saks, or Macy’s,” he says. “You had your charge card there.” Then customer loyalty disappeared as people began demanding designer names. Along came the Great Recession, and suddenly shoppers were more concerned with quality than labels. Stores that got ahead of the trend — WWD singles out Saks —found that they could work with the same mills that produce designer clothes, but sell them for less. “The quality is every bit as good as some of the finest makers,” says Mather.

So how can you take advantage? Whether you’re buying for a man or a woman, Mather agrees that you can’t go wrong with cashmere. Two good examples for the last-minute shopper: Saks private label men’s V-neck sweaters are made of cashmere milled at Scotland’s Todd & Duncan (whose customers include Hermès and Zegna). Bloomingdale’s is offering its own line of Michael Kors-designed sweaters for women. Both are selling for 40 percent off the prices listed below. — Jack Otter

  • For him: Saks Fifth Avenue Cashmere Sweater, $285
  • For her: Michael Kors Exclusively for Bloomingdales Cashmere Sweater, $229

Fill the Stocking

For him: No, you’ll probably never get him to tag along for a manicure, but you can give him the tools to take care of his mitts himself. Whether you’re tired of staring at the unraveling leather kit he’s had since college, or you can’t stand the thought of him using your dainty scissors to hack away at his gnarly toes, it’s time to upgrade his clippers. Traditionally, there’s been a wide divide in the world of manicure tools — you could either splurge on the gold (er, stainless steel) standard, a $150 German kit (really? to cut fingernails?), or settle for a $5 drugstore deal and hope that it won’t rust before your next clipping.

Now there’s finally a middle category of high-quality tools made for guys who prefer function to fancy. For less than 20 bucks, this four-piece kit includes nail scissors, tweezers, clippers and a file, all made from premium stainless steel. And as a bonus, the sleek, brushed-aluminum storage canister keeps everything neat and organized and doubles as a travel kit. File that under clever.— Jessica Lothstein

For her: Lotions and potions are a no-brainer for last-minute stocking stuffers: They take up a lot of space, and what woman doesn’t enjoy being pampered with pretty bottles that promise a spa-like escape? But for most men, few regions of department-store land are as intimidating as the cosmetics section. First you are assaulted by spritzer ladies wielding perfume samples like pepper spray, and even if you make it to the commission-based salespeople behind the counter, you don’t have a prayer. Are biodynamic plant extracts good or bad?

Head instead to saffronrouge.com, an online retailer specializing exclusively in organic beauty products, run by a husband and wife who test each product. They also offer a lowest-price guarantee, so you know you’re not getting swindled. This holiday season they’re offering a 20 percent discount on The Harmony Pangea Organics gift set, filled with minty shower gel, pine and sage soap, sweet orange lotion and a handcrafted soap dish. On top of all of that, it comes in its own 100 percent recycled, plantable gift box; soak it in water and plant it in the ground to grow a spruce tree. That should cover you for Christmas 2020. — Jessica Lothstein

  • Harmony Gift Set by Pangea Organics, $28

Upgrade the Family Camera

Moore’s Law may not apply directly to cameras, but they sure are getting smaller and faster in a hurry. The other thing that’s shrinking is the difference in performance between big, heavy SLRs and the point-and-shoots you can slip in your pocket. While the little guys can’t match the performance of pro cameras, the new S90 from Canon may come closer than anything else on the market. Among its virtues is an ability to take photos in very low light (for those keeping track, the lens opens to F2.0), which can make for much better looking photos than using a flash. Another related advance: The camera has a larger sensor — essentially the digital film — than most pocket cameras, which improves the quality of photos more than the popular, but less meaningful yardstick of megapixels.

As with all small cameras, it suffers from shutter lag: the delay between the time you push down and the photo is shot. But in my absurdly demanding test — children jumping in a bouncy castle — it performed better than any point-and-shoot I’ve used. Other cool features include a manual setting, image stabilization, and a cool ring around the lens that lets users change settings without going through layers of on-screen menus.

You’ll pay for all these goodies: The best price is around $399. But you’re getting some features that are usually only available in more expensive SLRs. And unless you’re shooting sports or children, you may not notice the difference. For more tech ideas, check out the holiday guide at cnet.com. — Jack Otter

  • Canon PowerShot S90, $399

Surprise the Grandparents

A personalized calendar is a great gift for anyone (well, anyone who wants to see your photos), but it’s really killer when it comes to grandma and grandpa. Let’s face it, for most of their lives, photographs were things that came in yellow envelopes a week after they dropped off their film. If the photos ever made it into a book, it’s only because someone taped them in there.

Now, of course, you can go online and print your pictures anywhere: on boxer shorts, baby’s bibs, coffee mugs, even neck ties. But just because technology makes something possible doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Unlike a trivet, however, a calendar is a good place to put photographs.

Admittedly — unlike the other gifts on this list — Apple’s iPhoto calendars are not better priced than the competition. They’re better, however: The paper stock and print quality is top notch, the designs are understated and sleek, and they are easier to put together. With Apple’s competitors, you upload your photos onto a website, and then put the calendar together online, an unwieldy process even with a fast connection. With Apple’s iPhoto software, you build the calendar on your desktop (or use the “autoflow” button to let the software do it for you) and then upload the whole thing once it’s completed. The program has nice little touches, such as the ability to drop a photo into a particular date — so you can mark October 31 with a picture of the little trick-or-treaters, for example. And if dad wants to block out that fishing weekend or mom wants to reserve a girls night out, well, you’re in control of the calendar, aren’t you? — Jack Otter

  • Apple Wall Calendar, $19.99

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