The big players

Best Buy's group gift program is called the Pitch In Card. Users register online for this free card, which is mailed to them. They can link it to a wish list on the electronics retailer's site and send links to this list, with the option to "pitch in" for one or more of the items by contributing to the card.

The Group Gift page on eBay lets shoppers choose gifts from its fixed-price "Buy It Now" selection. You select a recipient, choose a gift -- gift suggestions are also presented as part of the setup -- and then invite other friends via email or Facebook to chip in with a credit card or PayPal account. You can ask everyone to contribute an equal share or set it to "manual," so friends can kick in what they like.

The funds collected are sent to the organizer's PayPal account so he or she can buy the gift, and an e-card is sent to the gift recipient on whatever day the organizer sends it (or prints it out).

The names of the contributors, but not the amounts contributed, will show up on the gift page. Only the organizer can see who kicked in what amount, so there's less shame in small contributions.

And if you can't find exactly what you're looking for, or your friend Peter buys himself that new iPad before Christmas, the organizer can simply give you your money back (as he or she can on most of these sites).

"We see shopping as an inherently social activity," says Johnna Hoffs, an eBay spokeswoman. And given the large crowds and hassles with parking around the holidays, it just might be more pleasant to shop together online.

The pros and cons

Of course, you will pay something for this convenience. Shareagift charges a $1 administrative fee per contribution, in addition to PayPal's fees, which total 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction. However, Shareagift founder Angelli says she hopes to eliminate the $1 fee in coming months as its traffic and retail partnerships pick up steam.

Likewise, ChipIn is subject to those same PayPal charges. WePay charges a straight 3.5% fee per contribution. Best Buy's program is free.

Another potential downside is a lack of control over what is being bought, unless you are the organizer in charge of the funds. That means that your friend could buy a brand or model of laptop that you would never buy.

Moreover, with eBay you're also not able to purchase items that aren't categorized as new, aren't in the U.S. and aren't under $2,000. So that classic car or estate jewelry is probably out.

And there's always the chance that some people may be put off by your online solicitation or confused by the whole process.

Adrienne Kleckner, a 29-year-old Chicago medical device salesperson, said some of her relatives were perplexed when she set up a wedding wish list on Honeyfund, rather than set up a registry at a major department store.

"We had to spread the word on how it works," she said. "Not everyone was so Internet-savvy."

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But she said it was worth it because she and her husband didn't have to pack their small two-bedroom apartment with traditional gifts such as china or appliances. Instead, they were able to receive exciting excursions, massages and other luxurious experiences they normally wouldn't have been able to afford on their honeymoon.

"I loved it," she says. She says she expects to use group-gifting sites for upcoming birthdays and holidays, even to send ideas to relatives for a gift she wants, like new boots.

That, Angelli says, is the whole idea.

"Eighty-four percent of adults get the gift they don't want at Christmas," she says. This way, she says, "you can tell people, 'This is what I actually want.'"