Skip to main content

Originally published December 24, 2014 at 6:54 PM | Page modified December 25, 2014 at 7:55 AM

  • Share:
  • Comments
  • Print

Internet shopping has made it harder to hide holiday presents

Instead of hiding gifts in the closet or car trunk, shoppers on the Internet now must intercept the delivery person, hide email receipts in obscure folders, scrub their Internet history and buy with gift cards so a nosy spouse doesn’t spot charges on the credit card.

The Baltimore Sun


BALTIMORE — Determined to replace his mother’s ancient tube television for Christmas this year, Ben Hebert bought a 40-inch flat-screen TV online in a Cyber Monday deal and had it shipped to her home.

But when the TV was delivered to her doorstep, it was obvious what was inside the box. “Holy guacamole,” his mother texted him.

“They shipped it in a giant box that’s basically the TV,” said Hebert, 25. “The surprise was ruined way before Christmas.”

Online shopping was bigger than ever this year, setting records and eclipsing Black Friday, but there is a trade-off for that convenience — it’s upended the tradition and joy of surprise that comes from hiding a Christmas present.

Instead of hiding gifts in the closet or car trunk, shoppers now must intercept the delivery person, hide email receipts in obscure folders, scrub their Internet history and buy with gift cards so a nosy spouse doesn’t spot charges on the credit card.

Even Web-savvy shoppers have been exposed when a loved one noticed targeted advertising that uses a customer’s search history to suggest similar purchases.

Tyler Silvey said he woke up to an email alert recently from, suggesting an array of iPhone 6 cases. He quickly deduced that his wife, Corbyn, had been using his computer to search for a case as a gift.

“I just kind of put two and two together and knew she was getting me a case,” said Silvey, 23. “I just kind of laughed about it.”

He didn’t tell his wife about the Amazon email. “I’ll let her surprise me.”

About 27 percent of adult U.S. shoppers planned to do as much of their holiday shopping online as possible this year, with an additional 29 percent planning to do more than half of it online, according to a recent CivicScience survey of nearly 15,000 people.

Online sales in November and December are expected to increase from 8 percent to 11 percent of total sales compared with last holiday season — bringing retailers as much as $105 billion, according to the National Retail Federation’s online arm,

Shoppers need to remember that in many ways they have less privacy when shopping online than they do in stores, said Trae Bodge, senior lifestyle editor for RetailMeNot. If they’re sharing computers or mobile devices, members of a household can find out a lot about one another’s browsing and buying patterns, she said.

“You can go to a store and shop all you want,” she said.

But “when you’re online, because of technology, they can very quickly figure out where you’ve been and what you’ve purchased. You have to be a little more crafty,” Bodge said.

“As online shopping does grow and become a part of the way we like to shop, shoppers need to be more aware of covering their technological trail, so people don’t find out,” she said.

Retailers such as Best Buy and Amazon are starting to offer ways for shoppers to cover their tracks.

At Best Buy, customers can use the buy-online-and-pick-up-in-store option to keep gifts such as big-screen TVs and tablets a secret. The option has become so popular that this year the retailer extended hours chain wide, allowing consumers to buy online until 4 p.m. Christmas Eve and pick up in stores until 6 p.m.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in the purchase online and in-store pickup, so much so we had to put extra manpower on it,” said Brad Prevatt, general manager of a Best Buy in the Baltimore area.

The store dedicated five or six employees solely to in-store pickups, either gathering ordered items from the shelves or helping customers check out. As much as 40 percent of the company’s online revenue comes from customers choosing in-store pickup.

Prevatt said he’s seen customers going to extra lengths to disguise gifts.

“We get wives buying things for their husbands and putting it in their kid’s name,” he said.

Seattle-based Amazon offers a “Don’t spoil my surprises” option for its wish-list feature that marks bought items as unpurchased. Apple’s online store also has an option to hide recent purchases.

But some shoppers complained about lacking an option to stop emails from Amazon Prime, the online retailer’s paid service for two-day shipping and Web streaming.

Lauren Geskey opened a second Amazon Prime account for her Christmas shopping after the retailer’s automated emails gave away the Zippo hand warmer and LED lights she bought for her fiancés birthday a few months ago.

“I think Amazon should have an option to say ‘This is a gift, please don’t email,’ ” said Geskey. “Before the Internet, it was just about finding a good hiding place in the house. Now it’s all automated; there’s no human element to it.”

Cleo Stamatos had a close call with Amazon Prime when her 10-year-old daughter, Anna, logged into her account to buy something with a gift card. Anna stumbled into the online shopping cart listing books for her twin brother, Michael, at the top.

Stamatos told her to stop peeking before Anna could scroll to the bottom of the cart and find the gifts meant for her.

“Hopefully she’ll forget. She wants to believe in Santa so badly,” Stamatos said. “If she had seen the Playmobil stuff, I think the jig would have been up.”

Bodge of RetailMeNot has several strategies to help shoppers hide their tracks. She recommended that gift buyers maintain a separate credit or bank account, “so your partner doesn’t see the purchases.”

For those who don’t have separate accounts, she suggests buying a gift card, then using that to purchase gifts.

And she said buyers should remember when they’re sharing computers to periodically clear the browsing history and cache.

“It’s the browsing history that can get you into trouble,” she said. “Your partner can tell where you’re looking and where you’re shopping. A lot of retailers will follow you around online. If you’re browsing for a pair of sneakers for your husband, he might hop on the computer and see sneakers popping up all over the place.”

So that shipping online purchases home isn’t an unwelcome giveaway, Bodge suggested shipping to work, a neighbor or family member instead.

Or let mobile applications help out, she said. An app called Slice helps consumers keep track of all their online orders so they can better prepare for the time a package will arrive.

Robin Lee is still smarting over an experience three years ago, when she bought her fiancé a Kindle for Christmas. He arrived home before her and discovered the box, clearly marked as a Kindle, instead of a generic Amazon box that Lee expected.

He found the spoiled surprise funny, but Lee was disappointed.

“I’ve always enjoyed secrets,” said Lee, 29. “I was never one to go looking for my presents, so it’s frustrating for things to get ruined like that.”

When her fiancé opened the gift at Christmas, “he tried to sort of feign surprise, but it really became more of a joke between us after that,” she said.

“Everything I get for him now I have sent to my office, because I don’t want it to happen again.”

Four weeks for 99 cents of unlimited digital access to The Seattle Times. Try it now!

Also in Business & Technology

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

Relive the magic

Relive the magic

Shop for unique souvenirs highlighting great sports moments in Seattle history.



The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►