Eddie Bauer, L.L. Bean, and Harry and David all get high marks

By Elissa Klotz
Updated November 06, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

Ah, the sweet siren call of Catalog, goddess of expensive things that we don’t need but really, really want. While nothing matches the conspicuous-consumption buzz of a glossy real-life circular, many popular catalogs have opened online stores offering special discounts, sales notifications, and the ability to find what you want without viewing other items. (Wait — isn’t that half the fun?) CatalogFinder (www.catalogfinder.com) is a useful guide to mailbox stuffers real and digital, but here are our takes on some of the best-known online outposts:

Hammacher Schlemmer (www.hammacher.com) may sound like a Yiddish curse, but this catalog sells some very unusual, interesting — and, okay, borderline useless — products. Do you really need that drinking fountain for your cat ($50), or an alarm clock that projects the time onto the ceiling ($55)? The online storefront is simply laid out, making shopping fast and easy, and the search feature allows you to seek by key word, item number, or personal interests. But be warned: You’ll probably never leave without buying something like the wireless robotic dog ($120). A

For mothers who need to outfit the whole brood, Eddie Bauer (www.eddiebauer.com) is one of the best cybercatalogs, even without the special online offers. Services include gift wrapping, e-mail reminders for birthdays and anniversaries, and a Wish List that lets you tag merchandise and put it into a gift registry where family and friends can access it. You get exactly what you want, eliminating that long wait in the return-item line forever (or until 2000, when all our computers crash). A

Okay, you go to L.L. Bean online (www.llbean.com) to get a pair of Polartec fleece socks for your mother. You successfully ignore their signature clothes, camping gear, and monogrammed travel accessories — but find yourself booking a hiking trip for the holidays. What happened? Blame it on Bean’s national park guide, a database of parks, wildlife refuges, and forests that allows searches by park name, location, or outdoor activities. Other special areas include a Fleece Guide to help you buy the perfect winter coat, and an Address Book to fill with family and friends, so you won’t have to search for Grandma’s winter zip code ever again. A

Elaine Benes may have worked for J. Peterman (www.jpeterman.com) on Seinfeld, but the company’s online catalog has the personality of Kramer. The verbose clothing descriptions aren’t here — only specialty items, like a replica Louisville Slugger ($178). And the merchandise turns over quickly: A recent line based on Josephine Baker was even more recently replaced by authentic English beer pumps. The site is cumbersome and navigation is difficult, but kudos goes to the separate international checkout system (a rare plus) and to the Seinfeldian J. Peterman atmosphere: chaotic but well-meaning. C-

There are two words that cooking enthusiasts love to hear. Not ”I’ll wash,” but Williams-Sonoma, a chef’s best friend. Unfortunately, the culinary catalog hasn’t yet turned its skeletal website into a full-fledged online store. But don’t despair: the Kitchen Shoppe (www.kitchen shoppe.com) can help you find that perfect Calphalon pan or flatware pattern. The Carlisle, Pa., store also offers gourmet teas and coffees, a bridal registry, linens, and personalized gift baskets. One drawback: The lack of a search engine forces customers to view each page. Shipping takes three to four weeks, but two-day service and gift wrapping are available for procrastinators (like Williams-Sonoma). B