Need vs Want Gift Giving: the Ugly, the Bad, and the Good

It’s that time of year…

We again enter the holiday season. When we shop for gifts to give significant others, family, friends, and other gift exchanges at work, school, or online. As Americans, we spend billions of dollars on gifts each year. And the data – both from gift giving studies and reports on ecommerce returns – suggest we just don’t spend it as well as we could.



Gifting and Returns: No wonder it’s a stressful time.

Sure, it’s stressful going home to see family and traveling during busy holiday travel days. There’s also stress is not knowing what to buy, and we feel it every year.


In 2016, we spent nearly $660 billion on gifts for the holiday. A 2016 Consumer Reports survey showed that 42% of gift recipients returned something they received that year. A Rakuten Marketing reported that 71% of gift recipients don’t like the gift they received.


I’m in that same boat. My family is filled with good gift givers and I don’t have their same talents. I love stuff. I love finding the most random and exciting things, finding unique finds that will make you chuckle or say “I want that!”. But recent studies may be showing that just doesn’t make the cut for a good gift.


Consider also, that each day during the first week of January in 2018, UPS shipped 1 million packages back to retailers, and that’s just that one company. With a total of 1.4M packages returned in 2018, UPS refers to January 3rd as “National Returns Day”. In fact, they see 50% of their return shipments in the first two weeks of January, and another 40% of their returns December 26th to December 31st. That huge spike is the bane of e-retailers existence, yet continues to send us all shopping like crazy in the holiday season.



We all know it’s the thought that counts, right?

Amazon and other retailers know that we’ll be browsing in the lead up to the holiday, shopping for anything that stands out. There’s always someone hard to shop for and leaving it to the last minute only makes it worse.


Online gift giving guides sing from the hilltops give something sentimental that has a lot of thought behind it. However, a recent study showed that while that is what we should do, we often don’t.




Why? Well, in a word: risk.

The lead researcher of the study compared it to sports: “Essentially, givers seem to view sentimentally valuable gifts as having the potential to be either home runs or strikeouts, but they view preference-matching gifts as a sure single,” says Julian Givi, lead author of the study. “Rather than risking a strikeout, they go for the sure thing, when what recipients truly desire are sentimentally valuable gifts.”


This is really interesting, quality gift giving is fundamentally tied to those two elusive pieces of human greatness: risk and vulnerability. Gifting, as with most things in life, if we’re not willing to put ourselves out there, we’re not going to succeed.


In the study when presented with two options, gift givers routinely chose the “safe” gift that has some monetary value behind it tied to something they know the recipient likes. This is what the researchers called “preference-matching”. A good example is a jersey from a favorite team or a framed image of a favorite musical artist. These are both items that as a gift giver we know the recipient will like.


The researchers presented the above side-by-side with a sentimental or “home-run” object: a framed picture of the two friends at a sporting event or at the concert of the favorite artist. Even while reading this, we might think “Well, I’d definitely get the sentimental gift for my friend,” all the same in the study givers were far more likely to choose the “preference matching gift”. The researchers primed participants with images of success and failure while taking risks and saw direct correlation.


Even when recipients would prefer to receive the sentimental item, we still feel safer giving a preference matching gift.


The inevitable: “Coming home for Christmas is enough, you don’t have to get me anything!”

So, psychologists and research shows we want to gift something safe. Then add in our own procrastination, and that everyone already has everything they could want – well it’s no wonder UPS looks forward to return season every year.


Maybe what our friends and family are saying is get us something sentimental or meaningful. Go for that home-run gift, we don’t need any more stuff!


But we don’t. I definitely  subscribe to the notion that something surprising, unique, and fun that fits into something the recipient likes, will go a long way as a gift. Even if it is a preference matching item. And any number of gift giving guides and blogs out there are right there with me.


Of course these items could still be returned. But isn’t that just the spirit of the season?



It’s not just Christmas, either…

Mother’s Day is often one of the most popular gift giving holiday behind Christmas. According to a survey, 1 in 10 moms would just like a day off. That doesn’t cost you a penny, just your time as an older sibling or husband and father. And if you’re the boss, why not one up everyone and give all your mother employees Monday after Mother’s Day off? That may cost you something, but what a gift!



Of course, National Returns Day may just be product of our own success

That boom in returns that UPS looks for every January isn’t necessarily from everyone hating what they receive. And, really every gift does force the gift giver to put themselves out there and take a risk. The amount of returns can’t just be a failure of us as gift givers, it may just be that we’re buying far more stuff than ever before online. $90 Billion worth of goods were expected to be returned over the 2017 holiday season, which is about 13% of total sales according to National Retail Foundation figures. With a lot of purchases, you’re bound to have a lot of returns



How to get better at gift giving? Hint: it’s a conversation

Giving the greatest sentimental and home run gifts does require putting ourselves out there and being ok to fail. That’s not easy. There are researchers like Brené Brown who have dedicated their whole lives to finding out how humans can be more vulnerable, take that risk of putting ourselves out there. It’s not easy.


So what’s the secret? Think of Gift giving as a form of communication. Just as a conversation has a give and take, so to is gift gifting. What are you hoping to say with this gift? This is probably the best way to make sure that you give the right gift.


We need to communicate in our relationships, and every time we give a gift it we are saying something.


And with that, the following acrostic is my gift to you.


Remember to SAY IT

Slow down,

Amaze with the unexpected,


Items are the safe bet,

Take a risk.



Slow Down.

Start early and Take Time. Of course this is hardly a good option if it’s already November. There’s still time to make a thoughtful list. Prepare. Who are all the people you’re going to give gifts to? Make a list and write out things that make them who they are, their hobbies, or special moments you’ve had together.


Even the gift giving process can slow down. If a large group, take turns giving. Write out a note or poem about the gift and the person you’re giving it to and read it to them when you give the gift. All of this can help make the gift more special.


Even the time and energy put into wrapping a gift will have a lasting impression. Choose wrapping paper that fits with their interests or hobbies or ties into the gift, make sure you wrap the gift carefully. All of the time that goes into the gift giving process shows that you love the act of giving.




Amaze with the unexpected.

Surprising and unexpected gifts can carry so much more weight. Remembering something that was said in passing can make for a truly spectacular gift. Usually the person said something in passing or may have forgotten, but that goes a long way.


Many people have Amazon wish lists or Pinterest boards, have they saved items that might make great gifts? Can you find inspiration there?


Finding the intersection between tech, hobbies, and unexpected will make for a delightful gift. It doesn’t have to be centered around a gift giving holiday, maybe there is another time that you’d love to communicate that you were thinking of them.





Think of the other person, what do they like, want, or need? The focus is on the recipient and no one else.


What are some times you’ve had together in the past? Special moments or shared experiences, all of these could make great gifts.




Items are the safe bet.

Find something on that will amaze and inspire them. The solid base hit is a thing, and it’s a great last minute find. Maybe it’s something for the fisherman in your life or someone who loves their dog more than their own children. Or maybe you just need that perfect joke gift, something that will make anyone laugh. 


Items are the OG gift, even the first Christmas thousands of years ago saw the three magi bring a baby Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You can’t go wrong with something special that made you think of the recipient.




Take a Risk.

What’s stopping you from trying to make that home run gift? When you put in that thought and communicate that you value the relationship with a gift that isn’t just another thing they’ll put in a closet, you’re communicating so much more. You’re thinking about them, you’re looking to cherish a special time together. All of that will make for a truly remarkable gift. 

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