Put e-gifts in virtual stockings this holiday

Apple's iTunes lets shoppers buy apps, music, movies and TV shows as gifts.

Story highlights

  • Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble let customers give e-goods as gifts
  • Google and Spotify do not offer gifting features in the U.S.
  • About a quarter of holiday shoppers plan to buy virtual gifts this year, a report says

Digital gifts may be tough to wrap. But they can be more convenient for both givers and recipients.

An album from iTunes or a Kindle e-book from Amazon have become viable gift options for shoppers, especially on the eve of a holiday or for people living far away. Digital items can be purchased with a few clicks and delivered instantly.

And because they don't need to be shipped, they're environmentally friendly.

Revenue from some virtual goods, including games and applications, will reach $2.9 billion next year, according to research firm Inside Network. Once you add digital music downloads, which research firm Gartner says will rake in $6.3 billion this year, and online video streaming through services such as Netflix and Hulu, the market becomes quite large.

Gift cards are always a popular alternative, but for people who would rather give a specific present, many of the big digital retailers are providing ways to send downloads via e-mail.

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About a quarter of holiday shoppers plan to buy virtual gifts this year, according to a research report from e-commerce provider Elastic Path. Children may find themselves running to check their e-mail on Christmas morning or each night of Hanukkah.

Apple: Through its iTunes program on a computer, Apple lets you give apps, music, movies and TV shows to be sent to someone's e-mail address or to be printed as a certificate at home. Click the down arrow beside the "buy" button on an item in the iTunes store and then click on "Gift This."

    The iTunes or App Store buttons on Apple's mobile devices also have this feature tucked at the bottom of each listing.

    Apple does not let shoppers send e-books as gifts via iBooks, however.

    Amazon: The online retailer has "Give as a Gift" buttons located under the "buy" buttons all over Kindle books and MP3 music in its store. Amazon launched the feature last holiday season. The songs are in a standard format that can be played on many music players, and the books can be viewed using the apps Amazon offers for phones, tablets and computers, as well as in a computer's Web browser.

    Amazon does not seem to let shoppers gift apps, like those for the new Kindle Fire tablet. But children using their parents Kindle tablets won't have a tough time racking up the charges thanks to the devices' deep integration with the Amazon store.

    Barnes & Noble: The bookseller's Instant Gifting covers both apps and e-books for the Nook tablets and e-readers. The retailer lets recipients exchange unwanted gifts -- say, the full "Twilight" series -- for store credit.

    Google: The computing giant sells apps, e-books, movie rentals and music downloads in the Android Market. But it does not allow customers to purchase them and have them delivered as gifts, a Google spokesman said.

    Others: Popular web media services, including Netflix and Pandora, sell subscriptions that can be given as gifts. Hot music streaming service Spotify offers this in parts of Europe but not yet in the United States, a spokeswoman said.

    So in short, stockings may be lighter this year. But inboxes may be fuller.