As the days count inexorably down to Christmas, here's what professional gift consultant Andrea Claster says not to give your nearest and dearest:
* Any sort of pet, no matter how cuddly.
* A home appliance -- especially to your wife.
A man should "never, ever" break the last rule, Ms. Claster advises in her witty new gift-giving guide, "Modern Living and Modern Giving," unless he's "looking for a sneaky way into divorce court."
After nine years in retailing, with stores such as Bloomingdale's and Alexander Julian, in renowned shopping havens like Los Angeles' Rodeo Drive and New York's Trump Tower, Ms. Claster has developed a roster of good and bad gifts.
These days, as president of Claster & Co., a gift advisory firm in New York, Ms. Claster's primary focus is corporate gift-givers. But no matter whether the giver is a CEO or a parent getting something for the in-laws, many people get sweaty palms just thinking about gifts, she said in a recent telephone interview.
"Problem givers resist shopping out of fear," Ms. Claster said. "They panic, and forget to break the issue of what to give away from the emotion of whom they're giving to."
Time is also a key issue for people juggling full professional and personal lives, she added. Because of that she encourages telephone and catalog shopping, and often advises harried clients to use a personal shopping service.
A service like the Owings Mills Concierge Center, for example, "will do everything from checking [in] your coat to giving gift ideas, wrapping your gift and shipping it," said Owings Mills mall spokesman David Nevins.
The year-old service, open seven days a week, offers most of its services free of charge, Mr. Nevins said. A shopping service, in which the concierge will pick up specified gifts and wrap them, is available for an hourly fee.
While some gifts are absolute no-no's, there are related items that pass muster, Ms. Claster added. A pair of house slippers generally is a bad idea for men, who prefer to think of themselves "padding around the jungle barefoot," but socks -- particularly the decorative type -- are just fine.
Flowers are always a good gift in an emergency, Ms. Claster said.
If the flowers are for a female, "why not work a piece of jewelry into the arrangement?" she suggested.
Ms. Claster offered these addition al gift tips:
* Corporate gifts:
Choose items of good quality that are functional in a way that doesn't relate to the recipient's gender. Also "in this day there's a real trend away from excess. People are shifting away from giving the wild office parties to giving gifts that have an emphasis on health and hearth," Ms. Claster said.
Gifts related to sports -- such as a whistle, a sports watch, or a fanny pack -- are good. It's important, however, to "do your homework" when giving a business gift.
"Find out your client's likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests -- and select your gift accordingly," Ms. Claster advises. A die-hard sports fan might like a satin team warm-up jacket or other sports paraphernalia, she said. A secretary who just moved
the suburbs might enjoy a badminton set.
* Can't-miss gifts:
For newborns, chocolate cigars, flowers, a silver spoon or a tree planted in the baby's honor "could make you into a super giver," Ms. Claster said.
Older kids would be thrilled with a long-promised trip to the amusement park, with all the cotton candy they can eat.
Grandparents love framed photographs of the grandchildren. Ditto phone calls from the same small folks. Siblings like a video ++ of a favorite movie or, even better, vouchers for weekend baby-sitting.
There even are some can't-miss ideas for the office: a recent Gallup survey of business gift giving found that 40 percent of the women preferred plants or flowers as a busi
ness gift, while 46 percent of the men preferred tickets to an entertainment or a sporting event, Ms. Claster noted.
* Really thoughtful gifts for family or friends:
For a spouse's birthday, breakfast in bed or a night out at the theater. For your grandparents, a weekend of sightseeing or a morning spent helping them in the garden, complete with a gift of new shrubs.
Never give money, Ms. Claster advises her clients.
Instead, give children a certificate of deposit, that grows with them, or invite adults to dinner at a restaurant and give the maitre d' your credit card number beforehand to pay for the check.
"Remember, it's the thought that counts," Ms. Claster said.
"Everything comes back to that."