Research shows holiday shoppers often don't buy what recipients want

By our News Team | 2022

We’re so worried that the people we’re buying gifts for will be offended by our present, that we overspend or get them what they don’t want.

The time for sharing Christmas presents and holiday gifts is almost upon us. But a US-based academic who specialises in ‘gifting’ says there are frequently mismatches between the expectations of giver and recipient, which ends up in dissatisfaction for both parties.

Julian Givi, an Assistant Professor of Marketing at West Virginia University, has had research papers on gift-giving published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology and European Journal of Marketing, as well as an overarching summary and analysis of gifting research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Consumer Research

Photo by Adrienne Andersen from Pexels

“I always assumed people give to make recipients happy,” Givi said, “but that’s not the case. When we give gifts, we want to make the recipient happy and we want to make ourselves happy. The gift has to accomplish two goals that sometimes contrast, because givers and recipients often want different things out of a gift.”

He has uncovered various mismatches between giver and recipient. For instance, gift recipients welcome sentimental presents like handwritten notes or photographs, or unconventional gifts like an e-reader for Valentine’s Day. But they won’t get those from most givers, who think these gifts will miss the mark.

Givi has also discovered that givers focus on the gratifying moment when the bow comes off, the fun present is revealed, and the recipient’s smile lights up – while recipients want practical gifts they can use for a long time.

In one recent study, Givi investigated the stress people feel around holiday shopping, focusing on givers’ anxiety about how recipients will rate their gifts against the givers’ equivalent possessions. For example, how they’ll feel about getting standard headphones when the giver owns more expensive noise-cancelling ones, or about getting a [smaller] 3.6-litre air fryer when the giver owns a [bigger] 9-litre version.

To unpack this obsession with measuring what we give against what we own, Givi enlisted study participants to enact scenarios that involved deciding whether to purchase gifts that compared unfavourably to things recipients knew the givers already owned.

Playing the roles of friends, co-workers or romantic partners, study participants imagined buying or receiving presents ranging from mug warmers to event tickets. 

Givers overestimate how offended recipients will be

The study’s results showed givers consistently overestimated how offended recipients would be to receive an inferior – older, cheaper, or less highly rated – version of an item they knew the giver had.

Although recipients weren’t concerned about those disparities, givers were so worried about them that, to avoid offending recipients, they’d go over budget or even give a gift they knew the recipient wouldn’t like as much as the ‘inferior’ option.

In a separate study, Givi examined givers’ unwillingness to buy presents they’d never buy for themselves – specifically, presents that conflict with the givers’ attitudes and beliefs.

This research related to gifts people feel emotional about. For example, a vegetarian thinking about giving a gift card to a steakhouse, or a sports fan considering buying the jersey of a hated rival team 

The study showed givers strongly resist bending their attitudes to give these sorts of gifts, even knowing how much they’d be appreciated. Instead, givers will use their budgets on presents they know are relatively undesirable, amounting to inefficient spending that could damage relationships.

Other takeaways from the study pertain to stores and their marketing teams, rather than to shoppers.

“Imagine I’m a bookseller,” Givi suggested. “During the holiday shopping season, I should think twice about promoting books that would be attitude-inconsistent for a considerable segment of givers – say, a [former US Republican President Donald] Trump or [former US Democrat President Barack] Obama autobiography. 

“Because [one] segment is unlikely to buy those books even if I [marketed them heavily], I should rather promote books that won’t be attitude-inconsistent for anyone. When retailers know what recipients want, they can lower gift returns. When marketers know what givers like and don’t like to give, they can be more efficient with their advertising budgets.”

Read more about the research in the Journal of Consumer Psychology here. Read more about the research in the European Journal of Marketing here.