What’s in the mail? Hot sauce, wine, bonsai tree

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If you’re ever stumped for a gift idea, there’s an “of-the-month” club for almost everyone.

There are the old reliables offering monthly packages of coffee or hot sauce, chocolate or fruit.

There are the seemingly obsolete, like the movie-of-the-month club from a company called Amazing Clubs, which charges nearly $30 to send candy and popcorn and a Blockbuster gift card good for one movie rental to people who apparently don’t know how to use Netflix or the Internet or Redbox.

Others are just baffling, like the $21.95 necktie-of-the-month club, also from Amazing Clubs, for men who prefer that a total stranger chooses their ties.

Some are relatively inexpensive and fun, like the Mineral of the Month Club, a small California outfit that mails out chunks of dolomite from China, rhodonite from Peru and the like. “Small, study-size” minerals a couple inches long are $8 a month; bigger specimens cost more.

Other clubs involve more investment, like a Year of Godiva Dark Chocolate for $375, or the bonsai club from 1800Flowers.com, which sends a miniature plant six times a year for $39.99 apiece. In October, you’ll receive a tiny rosemary “tree” and in December a camellia.

Whether offered by independent online shops, chain stores or Internet giants, the clubs all have roughly the same format ? you commit to a series of shipments, and a fixed amount is regularly billed to your credit card. The purveyors of these offerings know most people are creatures of habit, says Marv Goldberg, a professor emeritus of marketing at Penn State. So, even if you can opt out at any time, you’re more likely to stick with the default option ? keep getting stuff in the mail, and paying for it ? because it requires zero effort.

“We’re tied up, we’re busy with other things,” Goldberg says. “If the company can set you in motion to buy the shoe of the month or the wine of the month or whatever, it takes a lot to stop it.”

There is clear appeal in getting a new version each month of something you (or your loved ones) already like. You can rely on someone else’s expertise to expand your horizons, whether for wine or salsa or flowers. You can be the life of the party with beer from a tiny microbrewery in Michigan when everyone else is bringing Miller Lite. You can try out new things without a big commitment. The Yarn of the Month Club, for example, sends “generous samples” of four new yarns every month for $8.75: “You can experiment, design and play with a variety of weights and fibers without investing in a whole skein,” the Oregon-based club says on its website.

I admit to being a little intrigued by Amazing Clubs’ “variety club,” which lets you mix and match: Get cookie samples one month, sirloin the next. I just can’t justify spending the money (about $28 a month for the cookie club, $88 for the sirloin club) or expanding my carbon footprint when the deli on my street offers cookies and steak that seem pretty good.

And I’ve considered signing up for monthly DVDs from the Film Movement, handpicked by people much hipper than me, because it would save me the trouble of figuring out which obscure indie films were the talk of Burning Man this year. But I don’t want to spend $12.50 apiece on DVDs I might hate.

For the most part, these clubs seem like the epitome of American consumerism: They get us to spend too much on things we don’t really need because they make us feel like we have exclusive access to something. And if there’s fun inherent in shopping, they take it away. I want to build my palate for barbecue sauces organically, whenever I take a trip down a country road ? not when a stranger picks a new version for me to try. And let’s not even pretend that the world needs gourmet versions of doggie treats, beef jerky or potato chips, though you can find clubs selling all those things.

If you do plan to sign up for a monthly club, do your research beforehand.

Find out whether you can commit to a shorter period, like three months. And ask questions: Will your membership end automatically, or will you keep getting packages (and credit card charges) until you figure out when, where and how to opt out? How will you be compensated if a package gets lost or arrives damaged?

You could just ditch the clubbiness and build your own expertise, which can be more fun and probably will yield better results.

“If December is peach and you don’t like peach pie, you’re going to see it as a waste of a month,” says Kim Johnson, a professor in the retail merchandising program at the University of Minnesota. “Maybe you should just go to the pie shop and get what you want.”

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The AP’s Smart Spending column offers tips and insight on reining in the cost of everything from jewelry to groceries and from spa services to utilities. Email comments and suggestions to retail(at)ap.org.