Admit it: All you want for Christmas is an electronic Frisbee

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The Independent Online

Would you consider buying a motorised CD-rack for yourself or a friend? Paul Wilson wouldn't. "Gimmick," snapped the content editor of Firebox, a catalogue and online gift retailer which has been selling since April. "That's not fun - that's just trying to make something that's boring into something functional. We are trying to be more entertaining with what we offer people."

Would you consider buying a motorised CD-rack for yourself or a friend? Paul Wilson wouldn't. "Gimmick," snapped the content editor of Firebox, a catalogue and online gift retailer which has been selling since April. "That's not fun - that's just trying to make something that's boring into something functional. We are trying to be more entertaining with what we offer people."

Which is why Firebox will offer you, for example, a programmable Frisbee - as it whirls through the air it spells out a word - and a £50 chip fork, like the ones you get at chippies but made of silver, and a host of other presents you didn't know you wanted. "OK, the chip forks might not ship by the truckload," admitted Mr Wilson, "but people like receiving frivolous gifts."

And that is why any Sunday paper you buy will drop a cargo of catalogues, which may just be worth keeping; what might seem daft to you may just turn out to be a perfect last-minute gift for that hard-to-please relative.

Toby Templer, the chief executive of Hawkin, which has a chain of eight shops as well as its catalogue and internet business, said: "We do 80 per cent of our business in the last three months of the year." He said: "It's so busy right now we've hardly got time to think."

Nobody collects figures on how much that market is worth - as much as anything because it's impossible to categorise a market which offers anything from a £10 miniature filing cabinet for business cards (with a digital clock, of course) to a £250 MP3 watch.

There's certainly little time for catalogue envy between retailers: "I could spend time wishing that we'd found this thing or that, but I'm happy with our range," said Mr Templer. "What we've found is that nostalgia sells." Even the computerised skipping rope? "Well, we're bringing the skipping rope up to date. A lot of toys are using technology that's come out of computers."

Certainly for most people, the catalogues offer a vast array of potential gifts which have little use at all. Reading through them shows that certain items recur again and again: the "Billy Bass" motorised fish, which sings when you pass by, is now part of the furniture (the Queen even has one), as are aluminium scooters and plastic "robot" dogs, and it's hard to turn a page without finding another wine-warmer on offer.

And if you own more than 10 and fewer than 100 CDs, there are a myriad of ways to organise them - on motorised racks, coat-hanger racks, bright plastic racks or leather cases.

But why the tendency towards objects with so little real use? Martin Hayward, the director of consumer consultancy at the Henley Centre, said: "Consumption is changing from needs to wants, and novelty items fit into that. Nobody darns a sock anymore. We're a throw-away country."

And even those needs have been considered, from the motorised shredder to the kitchen composter, which is probably where most of the catalogues will end up - by January.

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