Gift Giving

Buying the right gift.

I stumbled upon an article in Slate Magazine titled “The Sovereign vs. the Idiot: What kind of gift-giver are you?” by Joel Waldfogel. Its lead paragraph includes the following factoid:

Most of the time, people choose purchases for themselves and only buy things that they expect to value at or above the price they pay. With gifts, by contrast, recipients end up with items that givers guess that the recipients might appreciate.

The result of all this, according to the article, is that we often pay more than we should for items that may or may not be appreciated by the recipients. In other words, we don’t get as much satisfaction for our money. The article, which is about the economics of gift giving goes into more details.

The article brings me back to the days when Christmas shopping was a chore that required multiple trips to department stores and malls for gifts that would allow me to check off names on a list. In those days, the main concern was the people on the list, my budget, and what each recipient might like. Not would like, mind you. Might like. In those days, it seemed more important to check off the names than to get a truly appropriate and appreciated gift. I bought a lot of crap from those department store displays — you know, the rotating tie racks, the scarf and glove sets, the gift-packaged cologne. Easy gifts chosen by the store’s marketing department rather than the giver, generic gifts of the one-size-fits-all variety.

I was younger then. Not busier, but younger and less wise. Since then, I’ve realized that gift giving is more than just checking off names on a list. It’s finding the right gift for each person.

In my family, we cheat. In late November, we e-mail each other a list of items we’d like to get. Sometimes we include links to the items online. This is even easier if we maintain an Amazon.com wish list (as I do) or some other gift registry. Then we discuss it with each other to make sure there are no duplicates and shop online.

For example, suppose my sister in law had a wish list at the Gap that included 5 different items. I’d go check out her wish list and see that my budget allowed me to buy her two of them. (I always pick the ones that I like, too.) I’d then e-mail my sister and mother and tell them which items I was buying so neither of them would buy the same thing. They might each buy something else on the Gap list or perhaps something from another list. As a result, my sister in law would get exactly what she wanted with no duplicates.

It goes the same way with big gifts. Suppose my brother wanted some heavy-duty power tool. The price tag might be beyond what I’d normally spend, but if my sister chipped in, we could get it together. He’d get exactly what he wanted and my sister and I would both be done shopping for him within minutes.

In my case, Christmas shopping has become very easy. Not only do I buy just about all my gifts online these days, but I have them shipped right to the recipient. In the case of family members this year, they’re shipped right to the place the recipients will be — at my mother’s house. (She has already confirmed receipt of two of the three packages that will arrive.) If I was there, I’d take them from their shipping boxes and wrap them. But since I’m not, the shipping boxes become the wrapping. True, it’s not as attractive, but no one seems to mind. The only thing I miss is seeing the recipient’s faces as they pull out the gifts they really wanted.

I actually give gifts year-round. Not every day or week, mind you. Just occasionally. You know how it is. You go on vacation and see a shirt that’s perfect for a friend. There’s no reason for a gift, but the match is so good you can’t resist. So you buy it and bring it to your friend. I did this after my Thanksgiving trip. We’d been to a place called “Stan’s” and they sold t-shirts that said, in big letters, “If found, return to Stan’s” on the back of the shirt. I have a friend named Stan and I thought he’d get a kick out of it. So we bought it and gave it to him. I have another friend that we tease with SpongeBob SquarePants items. Every time I see something cool (but small; he lives in a fifth wheel), we pick it up for him. Gifts like these are seldom expensive, but they’re usually a good (or at least fun) match for the recipient. I get more pleasure out of giving these random gifts than Christmas or birthday gifts. I think it’s because it’s unexpected by the recipient and it makes them feel just a tiny bit special to be thought of for no apparent reason.

And isn’t that what gift giving is about? Making the recipient feel as if you’ve been thinking about him/her and what he/she might like?

What do you think?