When Jordan Weinstein turned 32, he did not send out invitations, host a party or even have a few friends over for cake. That all struck him as unnecessary and indulgent. What he did do, however, was register for gifts at REI, the sporting goods store, and then distribute the link to his mother, fiancée and brother to pass around.
“There’s this social requirement that you give a gift,” said Weinstein, an information technology director in Brooklyn, who is very “particular” about his outdoor gear. “But a truly good birthday gift is hard. A person has to know you really well to know what you want and need. With the registry, you can put exactly what you want: the color, make, model.”
Weinstein got the idea to register after “going to too many weddings,” and he never thought people would question the tact of what he considered to be a purely practical decision. Among some of his friends, “there was certainly a sense of people thinking that you’re a little entitled,” he said. “But once I explained it to them, everyone came to understand what I was doing.” He was simply avoiding the fake smile, he said, and being forced to say, “I love it” when he didn’t.
“My wife laughs about it,” he said. “But she registered for the wedding. There’s no good reason why one kind of registry is accepted and the other isn’t.”
While it’s hard to count how many exist, registries for not just weddings and showers but birthdays and other events such as housewarmings, holidays and even divorces seem increasingly common, perhaps because of the expansion in digital registry services like wish lists, smartphone scanners and universal gift aggregators.
Registries might decrease stress and save time for both giver and recipient, but they are also etiquette minefields. They didn’t become popular until after 1924, when Marshall Field’s became the first major department store to offer one, according to the book “Remembering Marshall Field’s” by Leslie Goddard. Back then, presents were generally limited to china, silver and crystal. After World War II, it was common to give newlyweds basic household appliances like steam irons and hand vacuums. But according to a Bloomingdale’s spokesman whom the New York Times quoted in 1958, “freaky items” – an eight-egg poacher or a 20-cup espresso maker – were unacceptable.
Every expansion of the registry business upsets Miss Manners anew. Not that today’s retailers care.
“Twenty years ago, registering for baby showers was considered tacky,” said Nancy Lee, founder of Myregistry.com, based in Fort Lee, N.J., which allows users to collect items from multiple retailers in a single list. “The notions of what people see as appropriate change. Birthday registries are in an early stage, but they will definitely become more popular; the wish list concept has taken America by storm.” Myregistry.com has been around since 2005, but Lee said that those who register for something other than a wedding make up “a huge, growing sector.”
Eidla Zirkind, 28, a software consultant in Minneapolis, used Myregistry.com for her last birthday. Like Weinstein, she did not want to have a big party – just dinner and drinks with friends. Still, she wanted to make sure that she loved whatever gifts she would receive. “I don’t appreciate buying a gift and knowing that someone didn’t like it and exchanged it,” she said.
Zirkind assumes that some people disapproved of the choice. “Obviously, someone would say, ‘What is she thinking?’ ” But she wasn’t concerned. The least expensive item on her list was an $18 ring from Piperlime. The most expensive was a calf-hair Treesje Coast cross-body bag for $328. Midrange items included a bottle of Chanel Chance perfume ($85) and an Anne Klein watch ($75).
Some people would never register for themselves, but are perfectly comfortable doing so for their children. “I’d feel weird asking for gifts, and if I was invited to a party, I would buy something, but I’d find it awkward,” said Claudia, a mother of three in Hillsborough, N.J., who asked that her full name not be used to protect the privacy of her children.
When her daughter turned 4, Claudia did not hesitate to register at Toys “R” Us. She chose inexpensive gifts – in the $9 to $20 range – that matched her daughter’s interests, and she left the big presents to family. “Kids have so many toys,” she said. “It makes it easier for guests to know what kids are into. Also, they don’t get duplicates.”
They also don’t have to deal with the disappointment of a lousy gift, a life skill some parents believe is worth teaching.
“Kids shouldn’t expect that they will always get exactly what they want,” said Lain Ehmann, an author and a mother in Lexington, Mass. “They should know how to smile and say ‘thank you’ even if they don’t like something.” Ehmann was astounded when her kindergarten-age son received a birthday invitation with a Toys “R” Us registry card tucked inside. “It was taking the party to a whole new extreme,” she said.
In advertising its registry services, it’s hard to tell whether Toys “R” Us is trying to appeal to children or to parents who wish they could get married all over again. A short cartoon on the website features a young, spunky mother who is unduly excited about the store’s latest development: an in-store scanner that allows children to romp through the aisles lasering bar codes. “It’s almost like a magic wand!” the mother exclaims with glee. (Toys “R” Us offers an app that will turn your smartphone into a scanner, too.)
“I wouldn’t put a scanner in my daughter’s hands,” Claudia said. “She’d register for every single thing.”