Do Your Last-Minute Shopping in Less Than an Hour

Every year, the Internet is flooded with gift guides on what to buy. The better ones, such as Computerworld's, "Cool Stuff: Your 2008 Holiday Gift Guide," show you the results of careful consideration by experts who cherry pick the best of the best in each category.

But when you're in a panic - as in "Ho, ho, holy $#@!: Christmas is Thursday and/or Hanukkah starts Sunday!" -- you need additional advice. You need help from a professional procrastinator. And that's where I come in.

I'm going to tell you how -- and where -- to do all your holiday gift shopping in less than an hour, buying all your loved ones the best gifts you've ever given and at low prices.

OK, we've got no time to waste, so let's get started:

1. Make your list

(And check it twice -- you don't want to forget anybody.) Write the names of all the people you intend to buy gifts for in two categories: Those you will give gifts to in person (which you will have shipped to your own address), and those you will mail gifts to (make sure you have their current mailing addresses).

When people can share a single gift, write them down on your list as a single entity (as in, "the Cratchits"). When you can buy multiple people the same thing (lets say you want to buy each of your three nieces her own copy of "Twilight"), write their names on the same line. Leave room on the left or right side, where you'll later jot down the gift you've chosen.

2. Choose your gifts

Here's where we shorten the most time-consuming phase of the whole gift-buying ordeal. We're going to do all this on Amazon.com , because: 1) They usually have the lowest or near-lowest prices; 2) they're reliable; 3) they give you good information on availability, shipping and other vital intel when you're buying last minute; and 4) they sell just about everything. Most importantly, they'll tell you what people want. No, I'm serious.

The most valuable page on the entire Internet for lazy procrastinators who have no idea what to buy people is Amazon.com's "Most Wished For" page !

This page provides you with multiple links to products millions of people have put on their "wish list." This is what people want, ranked in order of how many people want them. With imperfect information about what individual loved ones want, this page maximizes your chances of success based on objective real-world data.

Ignore the items in the main part of the page, and focus on the "Narrow by Category" links on the left. Go through each relevant category, and add to your Shopping Cart the gifts you "might" want to give. Don't worry about matching up gifts with recipients, or adding more gifts than you're going to buy. We're using the Shopping Cart only as a holding area for the gifts you'll later choose from. At this point, you'll want roughly twice as many gifts as you'll actually end up buying.

3. Buy your gifts

Click on the "Cart" button in the upper right corner of the screen. Now you'll be confronted with the complete list of items chosen so far.

Make sure all gifts say "In stock" under the gift name. If you see something like "Usually ships in 2 to 3 days" under an item, click on the Delete button to get rid of it.

Now you've narrowed down your gifts to items that are broadly "wished for" and also "in stock."

Match gifts with people on your list, and write the gift next to the list of people you made in Step 1. When you're giving the same gift to more than one person, change the number in the Qty column on the right to reflect the number of gifts. Once you've chosen which gifts go to whom, use the Delete buttons to eliminate the gifts you will not be giving to anybody.

When your Shopping Cart reflects only the items and the quantities of those items you intend to buy, you're ready for the next step.

Click on the "Show gift options during checkout" box just under the "Proceed to Checkout" button. Now click that "Proceed to Checkout" button. You'll be asked to re-enter your e-mail address and password.

Click on the "Ship to multiple addresses" button. Click on the "Enter a new shipping address" link. Click on "enter a new shipping address" at the top of the page. Add the first mailing address from your list of people you intend to mail gifts to. Repeat until all addresses are added.

Once all addresses are entered correctly, click on the "Ship to multiple addresses" button. (Note that if Amazon.com gives you a page you don't want, simply go back to Amazon.com, then click on "Cart" to start over. Don't worry. The Web site will remember all the changes you made.) Now, change the address for every item you want Amazon to deliver for you. Make sure the remainder will go to your own address. Click "Continue."

Enter your "free gift note" for each item, and choose "Gift-wrap this item" if you like. Near the bottom of the page, check the box that says, "Don't print prices on packing slips regardless of what I enter above." Click "Continue."

Choose your shipping options. Amazon will tell you when it will get there. If it won't get there on time, upgrade to One-Day shipping.

If you're shipping to addresses you've never shipped to before, Amazon.com will ask you to re-enter payment information for security. Go ahead and do this.

Carefully review all aspects of the "Shipping Details" page, then click the "Place your order" button.

Congratulations! You just did all your holiday shopping in less than an hour. You bought genuinely popular products at low prices without agonizing over every gift or -- best of all -- getting anywhere near a mall.

Now you can relax. And have a happy, hassle-free holiday!

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office . Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com , follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed .

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