Gift better: Pickie's "HackXmas" app serves super-personalized gift ideas

By Erin Griffith , written on November 19, 2012

From The News Desk

Nothing kills the holiday spirit like a few hours of aimless, miserable wandering around a crowded shopping mall having no idea what to get for the people on your list. Rarely does actually being in the mall inspire that brilliant, thoughtful gift idea. It's why plenty of us wind up giving the lamest gifts ever.

Online, there's no mall to wander around. The Internet's mall, Amazon, is search-driven, so you kinda need to know what you're looking for in order to look for it. The newest wave of e-commerce startups have worked hard to solve that problem with personalized recommendations and no search box. It's a move that turns off efficiency-loving users like me, but works in times like the holidays, when people need to buy things and don't always know what to buy. Amazon's wish lists can tell you exactly what to look for if your friends and family are enterprising enough to make them, but they also kill the joy and surprise this whole gift-giving thing is meant to inspire.

Pickie, an iPad catalog app, is one of the myriad of startups going big on recommendations. The app serves up stuff to buy based on what you Like on Facebook, what your friends share on Pinterest, and your identified preferences. It's like a shop-able Pinterest, and the signal to noise ratio is quite high thanks to integration with editorial sources (Etsy weddings and Glamour magazine, for example) and curation from co-founder Sonia Sahney Nagar.

The TechStars company launched out of private beta last month with $1 million in new funds from DFJ Gotham, Betaworks, Liberty City Ventures, Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments and MESA+. This week, Pickie has done us a bit of a favor in the aimless-mall-wandering department. The company flipped its technology on its head to create a pretty, organized, easy-to-navigate iPad app and website filled with solid gift ideas tailored specifically to each person on your list. That is, provided they're on Facebook.

You can now use the site's recommendation tool to get super-personalized gift ideas. The tool takes user intelligence, Facebook and Pinterest to identify interests, and then scans Pickie's product database to match those interests to products.

They're calling it "HackXmas."

As someone who has argued fervently that human curation trumps algorithms, I was impressed by the quality of Pickie's recommendations. The app's recommendations for gifts for me included a handful of things I already own and several more I'd been in the market for. Meaning, they nailed it.

But the guides are not perfect. Yes, Pickie, you correctly identified that my boyfriend likes craft beer, thanks to his Liking several microbreweries on Facebook. But what self-respecting beer fan would want a $40 Mr. Beer brewing kit? On the other hand, thanks to Pickie, my mind was opened to the possibility of a beer-related gift for him. The algorithm takes you 80 percent of the way, the human has to handle it from there. Either way, it's an improvement on generic "for Mom," or "for your boss" lists trotted out by the mainstream media.

And it beats the recommendations being served by Facebook's recently launched gift store. Wary of privacy concerns, Facebook is not yet taking Likes, or any other Facebook activity into account when recommending which gifts to get your friends. Even though, as Pickie's HackXmas demonstrates, it makes so much sense. The products Facebook Gifts offers are based on nuts and bolts demographic information like city, age and gender of the recipient. Which doesn't do much to explain why Facebook thinks my boyfriend would love $30 worth of cake pops or macarons.

PIckie's Sahney Nagar made it clear that gifts aren't her company's core. "This is intended to be a research tool we built for our users based on popular demand," she said. Unlike other recommendation-driven shopping sites, Pickie smartly has not bet the house on its algorithm. If the recommendations suck (surprisingly, they mostly don't), there's an option to browse through all brands in a category. (As with many catalog apps, Pickie monetizes with affiliate fees.) It's comprehensive and, unlike, say, Ideeli, or the Beachmint family of sites, incredibly easy to wander aimlessly through it. Oh, and it beats the hell out of the mall.