How about you get a gift (nicely wrapped) "automatically selected and shipped" at your house a couple or so days before you have to go the birthday party? No driving to shops and hassle of finding something in your budget!
Here's one suggested way on how it could work:
1. Let's say an online toy vendor (amazon?) starts this "free" service in which you enroll.
2. You provide logistics information: shipping address, credit card, and a default budget for gifts.
3. Amazon also provides an online calendar.
4. Anytime you are invited to a birthday party, you add an event on the calendar which includes date of event, sex and age of birthday kid. You may also optionally set a different budget for that kid (let's say he/she is the kid of your best friend etc.)
5. Amazon figures out the "most popular" toy for the kid in that age range and ships it to you a few days before the party. This is the step that saves you a lot of trouble!
6. Since the calendar is stored with Amazon, it already has the data populated for the next year. Voila!
I think this presents significant value proposition for both end customers and Amazon and here is how:
. creates brand stickiness
. allows them to capture a "new" market segment (parents who otherwise would have shopped at a local store for a gift)
. makes their life easy AT NO ADDED COST!
. Considering amazon does not charge state tax (for california at least for now...though this could change in future) at least customers in California enjoy a cool ~10% discount.
Thoughts/comments welcome... I am most curious to know if birthday gift shopping is a hassle or not for you.