My son and his girlfriend love to cook. So one Christmas, I gave them a cake-pop maker. Slam dunk!

“Ma, thanks, but we live in a very small apartment and don’t have a lot of room for equipment that does only one little thing,” my son said.

So what did I give them the next year? A chocolate fountain. Worse, I was dismayed when they didn’t exactly dance for joy. 

Okay, so I missed the mark two years running. But I’m far from alone. Nearly a third of holiday gifts are ultimately returned, according to Small Business Trends.

And that doesn’t include the enormous number of gifts that sit unused—or just don’t really give the recipient the pleasure that was intended.

Want to make sure you’re doing your loved ones right, this year and in the future? Read these insights culled from the surprisingly large body of research about why gifts bomb—and how you can do better next time. 

Why gifts bomb

When you give a gift, you’re thinking about the recipients’ wants and needs, right? Actually, researchers have found that much of the time, you’re thinking about yourself.

For example, you might give someone something you want them to have, even if they don’t want it—such a chocolate fountain (guilty as charged), or a man giving a woman itchy, tiny, uncomfortable lingerie.

One study found that big blowout gifts are appreciated less than smaller ones that get used.

“That’s his fantasy, not hers,” says Deborah Y. Cohn, associate professor, department of marketing studies, New York Institute of Technology, who has published a study on gift-giving.

Other examples of self-focused gifting, says Cohn, are when the gift is passive-aggressive, like when a mother who is all over her daughter about her weight gives her workout clothes, or when something is given for bragging rights (posts on social media are a dead give-away here).

And lavish gifts that are given for the purpose of dazzling the receiver are often chosen expressly for the purpose of the “ah!” moment.

 Those types of big blowout gifts, found a study published in the Association of Applied Science, are actually appreciated less than smaller ones that will get used.

Interestingly, socially responsible gifts often fall into this category, too. Research has found that givers tend to think about the “warm glow” that the recipients will feel upon receiving the gift, and not the utility of the gift itself.

How to hit the mark more often

The most appreciated gifts, researchers have found, tend to fall into one of two categories: either they’re truly useful to the recipient, or they develop the relationship between the two parties. Below are some suggestions.

Enjoyable experiences: Numerous studies have found that people more often appreciate gifts of experiences than objects. 

Turns out, much of the enjoyment stems from the feeling of connection the gift creates to the gift-giver.

“Participants reported feeling more intensely emotional from consuming an experiential gift…and this greater emotional intensity was responsible for strengthening the relationship,” says Cindy Chan, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto and author of a gift-giving study published in Journal of Consumer Research.

 So in lieu of a box under the tree, consider a gift certificate for a spa day, tickets to a game or babysitting services for new parents. 

Something they really need: A vacuum cleaner? Socks? Yawn.

Not so fast. Research has found that recipients care greatly about their ability to use or enjoy the gift. That’s why dazzling—but impractical—gifts so often bomb. Remember that life-sized stuffed giraffe that made your grandson go ga-ga when he opened it, but was then relegated to the corner of the room?

Moreover, thoughtfulness and price are not necessarily predictive of how much a recipient will use or enjoy a gift after it is opened. 

Gift receivers didn’t consider unsolicited gifts more thoughtful or considerate.

So if you realize your husband is, say, sorely lacking in ties, head to the sales rack in the men’s store at Nordstrom without a second thought.

Gifts that can be shared: When you buy something for someone that you also buy for yourself (called “companionizing”), recipients tend to like the gift more, and feel closer to you, according to a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Examples include matching pajamas for the whole family, two necklaces with broken charms come together to form a whole, or a subscription to a beer of the month club, to drink together.

Whatever they say they want: A study out of Stanford School of Business found that gift receipients are more appreciative of gift they request than those they don’t.

Moreover, while gift-givers usually assume that they’ll get extra points for the thought behind a surprise gift, it turns out that gift receivers didn’t consider unsolicited gifts more thoughtful or considerate.  

So when your loved ones send you links to a present that they picked out for themselves on Amazon, don’t look at it as a Plan B. Instead, take it for what it is—a gift to you, to make your holiday shopping just that much easier.


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