Karma: A Fresh Take on Gift Giving

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Harry McCracken /

If the venerable concept of mail-order gift catalogs hadn’t been invented until just now, it might look a lot like Karma. This app for iOS and Android, from a startup of the same name, is focused on helping busy people find and give gifts that are delivered by mail. The items come from a variety of suppliers, and include gourmet foods, gadgets, toys, various services and a lot more; they’ve been beautifully photographed and well-described, and many of them are the kind of things you might expect to find in an eclectic, elegant printed catalog.

But almost everything else about Karma rethinks the fundamentals of gift-shopping and giving. Consider these twists:

  • It’s an almost completely mobile experience. It’s onlyavailable for the iPhone and Android handsets, and you can alert gift recipients to their presents via text message (as well as Facebook or e-mail). They “open” a Web-based card from you that tells them what they’re getting.
  • You don’t need to know the recipient’s mailing address.They enter it themselves when they open their virtual card, allowing them to decide whether your gift should be shipped to their home or place of work..
  • It plugs into Facebook.By doing so, it can create a list of your friends and their birthdays. And it even scans their walls for signs that they might deserve a gift from you, such as other friends congratulating them on an accomplishment.
  • It lets you let them choose.Not by making you give your friends and family impersonal gift cards. Instead, you can specify a gift in a particular category, such as stuffed dinosaurs, and let the recipient choose a particular dino from several choices. Recipients can also decide to choose an entirely different gift than the one you specified, or can opt to make a charity donation rather than getting a present at all.
  • You can give now, then pay. Karma lets you give your first gift before you enter credit-card info and other personal information. (Once your friend opens his or her card, you can pay for the present before it’s shipped.)

From what I’ve seen of Karma’s iOS app, it’s great-looking and well-designed–a program that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as highly-polished gems such as Flipboard and Path.

In fact, with its deep social-network ties, addictive browsability and radical reinvention of an existing category, Karma strikes me as a spiritual cousin of Flipboard. When I first saw that app, I smacked my forehead and wondered why no big-name media company had invented it; with Karma, I wonder why an outfit such as 1-800-Flowers didn’t think of all this. It’s extremely clever, and I wouldn’t be startled if it, like Flipboard, proves to be a heavy influence on other contenders in its category.