"It's a challenge because they move quickly and their desires change quickly," says Gregg Andrews, Nordstrom's fashion creative director. "You have to have the newest, hottest thing. They're bringing in so much information, so what they want changes constantly."
The best bets, according to the experts: electronics — notably the smartphone, along with phone accessories; video game systems and games; fashion accessories; activewear (the "athleisure" trend); and items that let teens express themselves. Don't forget the standbys of cash and gift cards.
"The No. 1 thing is the cellphone — it's not even close," Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group, says of what teenagers want.
Gift-givers can then build on what the child already has.
"If I got you a new phone during the year or last year, I'm going to look to accessorize it this year," Cohen says.
All kinds of accessories, in fact, may be popular presents, he says. Think small leather goods, jewelry and watches.
NO SHAME IN GIFT CARDS
Aileen Avery, author of "Gift Rap: The History and Art of Gift Giving," advises steering clear of clothing, makeup and handbags. "Those are very personal style things that the teen should pick out themselves, especially if it's a girl," she says.
Her advice for a no-fail gift: cash, gift cards or electronics.
"If you don't want to spend the big bucks on the iPad or a cellphone, then you can buy things like accessories and little gifts and match them to gift cards," she said — for example, cool earbuds with an iTunes gift card.
Or wrap up a gadget like a Darth Vader flash drive or purse-size cellphone charger/flashlight.
Don't be embarrassed to give a gift card, experts say, because teenagers don't find them impersonal the way adults might. Just be sure you know where they want to shop.
"Teens would rather have one big, giant gift card than a whole bunch of little gift cards," Cohen says. "They don't want a variety. They want to make a splash in one store."
For inspiration, check out recipients' social networks to find out about their hobbies, what music they love or what team they cheer for, Avery says. If you spot a restaurant they enjoy, grab a gift card so they can dine out with friends. Or see what kind of video games they play.
Cash, says Avery, is the gift of "first resort": "Cash is better than gift cards because that's immediate. That's, 'go wherever, do whatever you want.'"
Idealistic teenagers will feel good receiving a gift from a retailer that donates to a charitable cause they are passionate about. "This generation is more socially conscious that way and wants to make a difference," Avery says.
UNIQUE AND PERSONAL
Good gifts for teenagers are ones that are new, different and let them show who they are, says Andrews, at Nordstrom. "They want things that are unique, that express their individuality and that they're the first to have," he says.
Among his recommendations:
Smartphone cases. Moschino has creative models turned out to resemble fast-food french fries and a melting ice cream bar; other brands feature floral, ethnic or animal prints. "When they all throw their cellphones down on the table, it's who has the coolest case," Andrews says.
He also suggests other tech accessories: earbuds, alone or built into earmuffs or headbands, or headphones offered with interchangeable "cans" for different looks.
"Headphones are a crazy thing now, and they're not just about the sound. They're also about the look and the accessory-like quality of them," Andrews says.
If you're looking for a wearable gift, consider the Converse sneaker, available in various colours and in styles from Missoni, the knitwear company known for zigzag patterns. For boys, consider a hat — a slouchy beanie or an old-school ski hat emblazoned with a team logo and topped off with a pom-pom.
As for activewear, there's the jogger pant for boys and girls. The relaxed fit makes it easier for gift-givers to get the size right. Same goes for a quilted vest or trendy backpack, Andrews says.
At Gifts.com, editorial curator Gwen Paja recommends a refurbished, vintage Polaroid instant camera as a nostalgic counterpoint to the latest technology. She also suggests necklaces in the shape of a state, and "experience" gifts, like flying in a jet pack.
Lastly, there's the gift they can eat: food or candy that can be ordered online or arranged in a basket. "Teenagers are the hungriest group of people," Avery says. "You can't go wrong."
Lisa Flam can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/lisaflam .