Receiving is complicated when gifts are not meant to please

SWS Report | December, 2016 | Articles, Features


giftA typical U.S. consumer is expected to buy 14 gifts this holiday season, and new marketing research describes how and why many of these gifts will cause dissatisfaction rather than joy. In new research findings, NYIT School of Management associate professor Deborah Y. Cohn asserts that people who give bad gifts often do so intentionally, and that retailers and others can benefit from this reality by creating positive experiences for recipients of bad gifts. Gift-buying in the U.S. is a billion dollar business with implications for brands, retailers, marketers, and consumers.

Prior gift-giving research has assumed that bad gifts result from mistakes, but Cohn’s study, using in-depth interviews as well as data available via online message boards, describes five categories of intentional bad gift-giving: gifts that threaten the recipient’s self-concept, such as giving a pregnancy test to your childless daughter-in-law; gifts given so that the giver (usually a member of the recipient’s household) can benefit from them, such as a sports fan who gives his wife a big-screen television; gifts explicitly meant to offend, which are usually understood to communicate passive-aggressive hostility; gifts given out of obligation, often to recipients
perceived as unpredictable or hard-to-please; and gifts given to allow the giver to brag or “outgift” another, such as when grandparents present their grandchildren with a gift the parents have explicitly asked them not to buy.

Cohn says, “Marketers who find ways to encourage buying gifts that will not be returned or assist gift recipients in doing something positive with unwanted gifts are sure to be the winners in the retail gift-buying season.” Examples of positive experiences include giving recipients an easy and rewarding way to donate unwanted gifts to charity. Cohn also encourages retailers to provide “gift experts” to counsel shoppers on their gift choices.

According to the National Retail Federation, U.S. consumers spent approximately $626.1 billion during the 2015 holiday season; returns totaled $63 billion, or a little over ten percent of the amount spent, according to The Retail Equation.

Cohn originally presented her research, “Thanks, I Guess: What Consumers Complain About When They Complain About Gifts,” at a conference on consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction held earlier this year at the University of New Orleans.

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