Opinion | What my research reveals about gift giving

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Deborah Y. Cohn
Deborah Y. Cohn (Courtesy of Deborah Y. Cohn)

By Deborah Y. Cohn

Since my daughters were little, the family Chanukah ritual has been for each to unwrap one gift each night of the holiday. They can only do this after they sit on the couch and sing Maoz Tzur. If the gift isn’t right (e.g., it doesn’t fit) there would be back gifts to be brought out. Some gifts are tangible and some experiential (e.g., theater tickets).

My gifting strategy with my family is informed by my research. I study consumer behavior and the marketing of gifts. Gifting is big business. In 2020, consumers in the U.S. spent $777.3 billion on winter holiday gifts and are expected to spend at least $843.4 billion on gifts this year. Holidays represent about 19% of annual sales. As we all know, consumers start returning gifts right after the holidays. The National Retail Federation predicts that, this year, 13.3% of holiday gifts will be returned. The economic and relationship cost of bad gifts is high.


My research has focused on why so many consumers buy gifts that are unwanted even when buyers are trying to please. Every year, gift guides are published to help givers find the right gift. But in the end, unwanted gifts are returned, regifted, left in a closet, sold, donated or thrown away. On the one hand, with the best intentions, givers misjudge the recipient’s preferences. Other times, my research found that givers intentionally give bad gifts. Really. The giver is not out to please the recipient but send a message that can be interpreted as mean spirited. In my research, I have identified five types of bad gifts that are given on purpose: 1) threats to self-concept, 2) to you – for me, 3) hostile, 4) ritual and obligation, and 5) competition.

A gift that is a threat to one’s self-concept, for example, is a Jewish ritual item for a someone who has turned their back on religion. A gift that is to you – for me, for example, is wife who buys her husband a Keurig, because she likes coffee and is working from home. A hostile gift usually communicates that one wants to end a relationship or has bad feelings about the recipient. Sometimes, we buy gifts out of obligation, just so that the other person will have something to open. And finally, gifts that are for bragging. Grandparents may want to out-gift their machatanista and be perceived as the better grandparent. None of these gifts are a very good idea.


Here are some things to think about when picking out gifts for people you care about:

1. Mentions: Have they said anything to you about something that they would love to have?

2. Hobbies and collections: Does the recipient have any hobbies or collections? Be careful about collections. People often like to curate their own collections. But something related to it is a good idea, like a mug that says “I collect dolls” or “I like to bake.”

3. Stay away from touchy subjects; no politics or gym memberships.

4. You can establish gifting themes for each night. In my family, we have sock night (funny socks that have sayings that are relevant to the recipient), mug night (with pictures, maybe from a hobby), gadget night, sweats night, bath night (e.g., bath bombs, facial masks), kitchen night (e.g., coffee grinder, pizza maker) and gift certificate night.

5. Don’t spend more than you have: Loving messages can be conveyed without overspending by getting to know the people you are buying for and communicating that you love them.

6. As a family, you can decide on gift giving limits and rules to stay within a budget. This can include group gifts and limiting the cost of each gift. Chipping in with friends and family to buy bigger gifts is cost effective.

Most of all, have fun. Create memorable experiences with your family and friends. This year, since many of us are vaccinated, we can gather together with our family and friends. Let’s have a party where we’ll all sing together.

Deborah Y. Cohn, Ph.D., is a tenured professor and interim dean of the School of Management at New York Institute of Technology, with published research on gift giving, innovation and green marketing.

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