TRIED & TESTED: Charity mail-order catalogues are full of novel ideas for Christmas gifts, but are the goods worth waiting for?
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The Independent Culture
EVEN if you're the sort of person who never buys from catalogues, the daunting task of gift-buying at Christmas - for a complex network of parents, friends, neighbours, cousins, colleagues and children - combines with seasonal charitable instincts to encourage armchair shopping. Many charities produce mail-order catalogues all year round, with special editions for Christmas. They contain some products not easily available on the high street, and can be an inspiration if you haven't a clue what to buy for people of a different generation or outlook.


We tested six of the biggest charity catalogues, to see if they would match the expectations of a casual shopper. We considered their design and layout; the appropriateness and appeal of their content; the efficiency of the mail-order service; and, of course, the quality of the products ordered. We selected two items from each catalogue - a T-shirt and a product that seemed characteristic of the individual charity.


Our expert was Susannah Constantine, co-author with Pia Marrocco of the newly published Just What I've Always Wanted (Quadrelle pounds 12.99), which aims to inspire gift buyers according to the personality traits of recipients. I acted as the naive mail-order customer.


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The order: "Lifeboat" T-shirt, pounds 12.50; King's Shilling tankard, pounds 24.95; plus p&p pounds 2.99.

Service: delivery promised within two weeks, but allow 21 days. Arrived within 18 days. Last date to order for Christmas, 30 November.

Unlike many charity catalogues, the Watermark version is produced "almost entirely by RNLI personnel" and its contents display a strong maritime bent. Good quality barometers, compass mugs, DIY ships in bottles and port-hole mirrors are all appealing, even if you think sailing is a cold, wet waste of time. "The layout is the clearest of all," said Susannah. "It's easy to use and there are lots of innovative products that would never occur to you." Boxes on each page tell of the exploits of lifeboat heroes and the cost of lifesaving at sea. The catalogue is helpfully divided into sections - home, garden, travel and "Customers' Choice" (products such as all-weather jackets and pocket torches which have proved popular with customers over the years). There is an emphasis on "rigorous quality- control checks" - but our pewter King's Shilling tankard was less perfectly engraved than we had imagined.


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The order: T-shirt, pounds 9.95; Geo Stationery jotter block, pounds 2.35; A4 writing pad (40 leaves), pounds 1.65; 25 envelopes, pounds 1.55; plus p&p pounds 3.50.

Service: delivery promised within 14-28 days. Delivered after 27 days. Last date to order for Christmas, 10 December.

This catalogue looks fantastic, with the "biggest range of organic cotton clothing in the UK" photographed on fashion models in beach settings. For the first time this year, it has been produced in association with Ecotrade - suppliers of eco-friendly cleaning and household products. The range isn't large and concentrates on textiles, recycled glass products, low-energy lighting and natural toiletries. Reading the catalogue is an education in itself: pillows and duvets can be filled with recycled, spun- plastic fizzy drinks bottles; chemical deodorants can be replaced with a stone that leaves an invisible layer of mineral salt on the skin; and T-shirts can be made from cotton (brown or green only) that deepens in colour when you first wash it. "The catalogue looks like a magazine," said Susannah, "but I'm not sure people want that from a charity. The photography is great, but the clothes don't look quite the right shape and are more expensive than you'd think." We expected the Geo Stationery jotter, made from obsolete OS maps, to show different geographical areas. Disappointingly, each leaf replicates only a tiny section of Southport. Our other grouse was that the 27th-day delivery (just inside the 28-day limit) was cutting it a bit fine.


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The order: "Lost in the Desert" T-shirt (children only), pounds 5.99; abaca jar, pounds 29.95; p&p pounds 2.95.

Service: delivery promised within 14 days. Goods arrived within 13 days. Last date to order for Christmas, 8 December.

The best intentions are evident in this catalogue, which features products bought at a fair price from the poorest people in the world. But we found its page layout visually the most exhausting; garish coloured boxes and photographs in which too many products are illustrated together do not encourage prolonged browsing. "The presentation is old-fashioned," said Susannah. "The catalogue does represent the people it aims to help, but this sort of ethnic ware doesn't appeal to everybody, and it needs a more sympathetic portrayal."

Oxfam's food baskets include exotic products such as mango jam and cashew butter. The bright colours and jazzy patterns of many products seemed perfect for children, though the T-shirt we ordered is the only one on offer. The abaca fibre jar turned out to be much larger than it looked in the photograph. Despite Oxfam's suggestion that the jar would make a good container for umbrellas, the one we ordered fell over as soon as we put ours in.


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The order: "Endangered Tiger" T-shirt, pounds 11.99; juggling frogs, pounds 8.99: plus p&p pounds 3.35.

Service: delivery promised within 14 days. Goods arrived within seven days. Last date to order for Christmas, 16 December.

For animal lovers, the WWF catalogue is a rich hunting ground for gifts. The T-shirts are great; ours got its message across with a realistic picture of a tiger, but there are also very sophisticated, all-over designs that go beyond the box illustration we chose. The best collection of throws (most of them reversible) and an imaginative children's section are other strong features. "They've really thought about the kids' things," said Susannah, who commented also on the high proportion of WWF branded goods and strips on each page detailing the plight of different wild animals. The juggling frogs arrived with an amusing instruction leaflet - further evidence of a good-fun mentality.


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The order: "Wine Stains" T-shirt, pounds 14.99; babies' activity ring, pounds 29.99; plus p&p pounds 3.35.

Service: delivery promised within 14 days. Goods arrived within three days. Last date to order for Christmas, 10 December.

This catalogue has a huge selection of Christmas cards, gift-wrap and decorations. "It even shows the contents of the crackers," Susannah enthused. The layout is busy, the products are fun and the personalisation of gifts (with embroidery or printing) is a major feature. There are, as you might expect, pages of stocking-fillers for children - and the more you look, the more interesting things you discover. We both homed in on the authentic- looking soup-can safe to hide jewellery from burglars - "a brilliant idea,' said Susannah, "amusing and practical." The babies' activity ring we ordered was just as much fun as it looked - full of squeaks, pockets and pictures. The "Wine Stains" T-shirt turned out to be natural cotton with "characteristic" flecks in it which have to be washed out - perhaps not so good as a gift.


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The order: "Paranoid Cats" T-shirt, pounds 12.99; executive dishwasher kit, pounds 7.50; p&p pounds 3.35.

Service: delivery promised within 14 days. Goods arrived within eight days. Last date to order for Christmas, 10 December.

Though the general design and content of Mencap's catalogue is strikingly similar to that of Save the Children, Susannah Constantine felt this one had "a real sense of humour". The "Paranoid Cats" was an alternative to a T-shirt decorated with the Penguin book cover of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, and the executive dishwasher kit (black rubber gloves, a black stainless-steel scourer and a "technologically engineered push-button liquid-dispensing brush", all designed "for Real Men") is an inexpensive novelty gift that made everyone who saw it laugh. The choice of products, as with many of the catalogues, ranges from the naff (cat and dog light pulls) to the nicely thought-out (games, puzzles and odd inventions). The charity seems to have missed out on the opportunity to remind customers of its work - what it does for people with learning disabilities isn't mentioned at all on the shopping pages.