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How to Find a Gift for Someone You Don't Know

Gift purchasing

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Gift purchasing usually pops up at some point in most assistant positions, and it is especially tricky when you are in charge of finding a perfect gift for someone you have never met. I've put together some general resources to cover a variety of situations. When in doubt, refer to the personalization section below; you can never go wrong there.

Collect information and brainstorm

Start out by collecting as much information as you can about the recipient, especially if it's a birthday gift. Some examples of questions to ask your principal:

  • What's their relationship to the recipient?

  • What's the recipient's favorite color? (Helpful for personalization)

  • What are the recipient's favorite hobbies?

  • What's the recipient's favorite food and drink?

  • Does your principal have any favorite memories with them?

  • Does the recipient have any children? (This one helps for family-oriented experience gifts)

  • Does the recipient have a pet? (This one helps for a die-hard animal lover gifts)

Once you have collected as much general information as you can, start brainstorming possibilities to go with every item on that list, no matter how small. So you do not have to collect the same information and do the same brainstorming in the future, I recommend keeping all of this information to refer back on. You could paste the information into the notes section of their contact in your principal's Outlook account, start a Dropbox folder for gift notes or even add notes in a recurring reminder about the occasion that's set in their calendar.

Start the gift research process as soon as possible. If you end up going with something personalized, the amount of time needed for the gift to be complete can vary immensely, not to mention adding on possible shipping time. If there's a holiday, a month with several birthdays or any other time where the amount of gift research will be atypical, start the process several months in advance. The main point is to set yourself up to be able to provide thoughtful and creative options for your principal to choose from. You also are setting yourself up to be able to provide options that are under budget since you will have ample time to compare prices.

Here are some ideas for gifts:


Books are typically a wonderful option. In one position I started a list of inspiring books to refer to for gifts, which made those a snap to nail down. If you are able to, it's a nice touch to have your principal write a note on the inside cover.


Cards are great for any occasion, especially if you aren't sure if an actual gift is appropriate. There are several websites that help to create and send customizable photo cards ridiculously fast. I recently gave Touchnote a whirl, and it was so easy and fun that I ended up sending two. A few others I have come across are Red Stamp Cards, justWink, ink and Cardstore. Felt gives the option of sending either a photo card or selecting a design and even has a neat feature that adds a handwritten note using the app. If you'd like an easily customizable postcard to send, Postagram is a great option.

I also suggest starting an organized card storage box (such as the IRIS greeting card keeper). Always keep cards on hand for various occasions so last minute situations are covered. These can be for birthdays, condolences, thank you's and more; the important thing is to make sure you have a few basics on hand that are separated out and labeled. Sometimes you might come across a great card that could be used more than once, or a backup card that you feel could be used the next year for a particular person; those are great examples of times to pick up extras to keep on hand.

Charity gifts

These are great if the recipient seems to have everything. Oxfam is a personal favorite of mine. You can buy a goat for a person in need, a vegetable garden, books for children and more. TisBest has a neat system. The giver sends a gift card, then the recipient goes to the TisBest website and chooses up to three organizations to receive the funds. JustGive has an extensive charity gift guide list that I recommend checking out if you would like to compare several different options.


Fat Brain Toys is a great website that allows you to sort by age, gender, interest and more. They even have books on there. I usually use this site for research and then find better prices elsewhere, such as through Amazon. A few other great sites are the National Geographic Store, Smithsonian Store, The Grommet, ThinkGeek and Uncommon Goods. If it's a younger child, you could get a book or music that is personalized with their name. There are so many websites that do this; just google "personalized [book or music] for kids" and a plethora will pop up. Magazine subscriptions, such as Ranger Rick, or local museum memberships are also great.

Experience gifts

Giving someone something fun to do is always great! Cloud9 is a great website designed for exactly that; they offer race car driving experiences, flying experiences and more. Tinggly Worldwide Experience Gifts is another great option, especially if you want to give the recipient the option to choose what they want to do. Tinggly has hundreds of experiences to choose from, such as diving with sharks, doing the world's tallest bungee jump, and dining with a NASA astronaut.

You could also research if there are any events or unique local services in the recipient's location. Groupon and LivingSocial are great websites for this type of research. I don't recommend purchasing a gift through those sites, though, because the timeline in which to redeem the gift is limited; just go directly through the company.

Gift baskets

There are so many creative gift baskets out there; below are some possibilities:

Gift websites

Gifts definitely should be personalized whenever possible, however, I wanted to give a few links to sites that I keep in my bookmarks for those tricky situations when you just need a starting point:


In general, personalizing a gift helps the recipient feel special. A couple websites I recommend for personalized gifts are CustomMade and Paloma's Gifts. Sometimes just having their name etched on something is all it takes to warm their heart. Do not get anything personalized with a name if you are unsure of the spelling, though; misspelled names on a gift will have the exact opposite effect.


If the recipient has a pet, finding something that they can enjoy with theirs is an easy route to go down. Research their area and see if there are any pet-friendly restaurants or cafes that you could purchase a gift certificate to. If you have a photo of their animal, you could order custom temporary tattoos, custom portrait stickers, wine with custom labels or even a custom t-shirt. Coffee table books are great options, too; a few ones geared towards dog owners that I recommend are "Miracle Dogs: Rescue Stories" and "Underwater Dogs."

Pet sympathy gifts can be hard. Pets are important members of our families, and thinking of the right gift for someone who has lost one is not easy. One of my favorite picks is pet memorial stones. Just google "pet memorial river rock stone" and tons of different options pop up. You could also go with a customized mosaic, such as through Doors, Windows, Walls and More. That artist is extremely talented with custom pieces, just know that the turnaround time is several weeks since each one is handmade. I recently sent plantable paper dog bones, which was an inexpensive and deeply moving gesture. Pet memorial tree gifts are great for a nature lover and the gift helps to restore our National Forests. If there are children in the family, the book Dog Heaven is a sweet story to help them cope with the loss. Lastly, bringing over homecooked meals, sending a catered meal or sending a dining gift certificate are also great.

Registry finder

If you need to locate a registry, I recommend trying the Registry Finder website first. I have had a lot of luck with it, and it saves a ton of research time.


Treats are usually crowd pleasers, so that is always a great option to keep in your back pocket. One neat option is eCreamery, an ice cream company that ships nationwide and can personalize the container with a custom message and/or your company's logo. Veronica's Treats can also ship throughout the country and can make custom cake pops, cookies and more that can also be personalized with logos, photos or even custom shapes. The Crispery makes rice crispy treats that can include custom logos. Sprinkles now ships their famous delicious goodies, including ice cream, nationwide!

Many wonderful treat companies are local, so one tip is to google "[name of the treat, i.e. cake balls, cookies or cupcakes] delivery [city name]." You can also search local bakeries on Yelp and select the "Order Pickup or Delivery" filter to find companies that also deliver.


If you are not the best at wrapping gifts, I recommend swinging by a Paper Source store and watch how a professional gets it done. There's a fee for this service, but it's inspiring to learn wrapping tips so you can eventually wrap gifts on your own at a professional level.


Once the gift has been given, be sure to record the date and gift information so you have that to look back on in the future. If there was a strong second choice that your principal might want to consider for the future, record those options as well.

What resources are your favorites for finding great gifts? Please share in the comments below!

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