Coming from this mom, who has three littles, I can tell you: I am OVER buying birthday presents for kids. Wandering up and down the aisles, trying to figure out what they might have, guessing what they may or may not like, and then trying to digest the absorbent amount of money everything seems to cost. And then I started streamlining the process... I found a few tricks I regularly use now when finding the perfect birthday gift. It goes like this...
Just ask. If you're in contact with the parent, ask what their child would like or need. Otherwise, send your child on a mission to get some present requests from his or her friend. Forget going at it blindly. You want to get them something they'll actually be excited about and use.
Buy something creative. If you're not sure what toys or games the child has, your best bet is to get them some sort of craft supplies or art kit. Toy stores always have really neat science- or creative-driven kits, to make slime, build something, and more. Art supplies such as clay or Playdoh, the latest marker set, oversized rolls of paper, etc. are also a hit with kids of all ages.
Buy something unusual or new. Smaller toy stores like these have really cool and unique items that are not available everywhere.
Buy something your own child has and loves. Once we hook onto a great toy, we start buying it for all of our friends who don't have one. It's a surefire way to share a kid-tested and approved toy!
Buy a gift card, but wrap it in a fun way. When you're at a loss, get a gift card. You could get a store card, an online shopping card, gift certificates to movies, activity centres (like these ones), restaurants, and more. Put the gift card in a balloon, blow it up, and put it in a box or gift bag. Wrap in layer upon layer of paper, or in an assortment of differently-sized boxes.
And remember: if you do decide to buy a toy, etc., always get a gift receipt in case it needs to be returned. No one wants to fight the store on returning something without the receipt.