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Finally, an online retailer with something for everyone

December 19, 2012: 3:02 PM ET

With Yiftee, online gift-giving goes local.

By Jennifer Reingold

yiftee-websiteFORTUNE -- Had it with the gift card epidemic? In search of something truly personal this holiday season? A new startup, Yiftee.com (a mashup of nifty and gift) is here to help.

Founded by Stanford-affiliated entrepreneurs Donna Novitsky and Lori Laub, both of whom have launched several successful businesses, the online platform lets you give a friend a gift from a small local store—say, a peppermint latte from your favorite café or a spinning class at the gym down the street—without having to go through the hassle of contacting the proprietor and having them take your credit card info. I am using it to send my stepdad lunch from a new deli in San Francisco, Moishe's Pipik, which—given that I live in New York—could have been a pretty complicated process.

To pick a gift, you can flip through suggestions based on location—or, if your merchant is registered with Foursquare, simply type in its name—then create your own present, complete with note, and send it via email, Facebook or text. The goal, says Laub, is to support local businesses over big boxes; customers pay a premium ($1 for the first $20, 6% beyond that), but the store itself pays nothing and offers no discount; Yiftee sends the recipient a virtual MasterCard and takes care of all the transactions.

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"We didn't think the Groupon structure was good for the merchants," says Novitsky. "So we came up with this idea of microgifts. Merchants don't have to discount, and people have to come into their stores to pick them up."

While Yiftee is hardly early to the online gift market, it has a few advantages that may help it succeed—particularly for liberals lamenting the loss of their local purveyors. First of all, it's easy; no more waiting on hold while the restaurant manager tries to figure out how to charge for a gift certificate. Second, Yiftee comes along at the perfect time to capitalize on the cusp of the locavore trend—as well as the backlash against big box retailers. "It's the opposite of Amazon," says Novitsky.

There's also a charity element to the site. If you don't use your gift within four weeks, you have the option of donating its value to a nonprofit. Otherwise, the value reverts back to the gifter; no more wasted cards sitting in drawers collecting dust. And last month, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Laub and Novitsky, with the help of marketing head Michealene Risley, decided to redesign its site, making it possible to do anything from donating cleaning supplies to buying a cup of hot cocoa for relief workers exhausted from mucking out basements. Risley visited the Rockaways, Staten Island and other locations hurt by the storm and connected with local groups handling donations. So rather than giving through a nonprofit with no sense of where the money goes, you can directly purchase supplies for those in need.

"In the communities that are hurting, we have someone on the ground who will help us distribute the funds," says Risley. It's not just Sandy: In the aftermath of the tragedy in Newtown, many people have been donating meals, etc. to the community. Yiftee is a useful—and convenient—way to show your support.

While the site is still brand new—it lacks certain functions, such as the ability to deliver a gift on a specific date—it has angel funding from major Valley bigshots, including Intuit's Scott Cook and Mohr, Davidow Ventures, and the four co-founders have already racked up a total of six IPOs and two acquisitions, including Remedy and Big Tent.

Silly name? Perhaps. But definitely worth checking out.

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