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How to win at gift-giving this holiday season

The quality of the gift matters, USC experts say; the size or cost of the item isn’t as important

Gift-giving research: holiday gift advice
Stressed about holiday shopping? Let USC experts help you avoid common mistakes. (Illustration/iStock)

It’s the gift-giving season — that time of the year we agonize over finding the perfect gifts for loved ones. Sometimes you know exactly what to get someone and sometimes it’s a guessing game, hoping a pair of socks is just what they asked for.

Fret no more. USC experts are here with a few research-backed tips for winning at gifting this holiday season:

Go bold

It often seems like a safe bet to opt for presents that aren’t too over-the-top, maybe an oatmeal sweater or a black coat. But, research shows, that bolder, more colorful gifts will actually be more appreciated over time.

“If we look at people’s liking over time, they tend to like products that have bolder designs for longer,” according to Eva Buechel, a consumer behavior expert and assistant professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business.

Taking their taste into account, maybe go for a bold color they sometimes wear and incorporate it, like a bold orange scarf. Buechel herself has seen the research play into her own life. She has a bunch of coats in a range of neutrals but always reaches for a red coat she’s had for years. She sees it in her decor, too.

“My office walls are bright yellow,” she said. “I really like having it. It’s really refreshing and bright.”

Surprises aren’t everything

“When you know that you think you’re going to be surprised, you start to think about what the surprise will be,” Buechel said. “If it doesn’t meet your expectations, you’re going to be disappointed. The surprise aspect is overrated.”

Although it sounds less exciting, wishing for what you want and getting it is likely more satisfying, she said.

Size doesn’t really matter

While the quality of the gift matters, the size or cost of the item isn’t as relevant, she said.

“People think getting a big gift will give them more happiness than a smaller gift. But the gift, regardless of size, is what gives them happiness,” Buechel said.

Giving a good gift over a bad gift matters but whether it was a gift card for $200 or $300 doesn’t. In the end, it’s just the feel-good vibes of receiving that stick with us.

Comparison kills

But take into consideration what you give others around the Christmas tree, she said. If you give your daughter an iPhone XS but your son an iPhone 8, your son might not be so happy. That plays into another aspect of gift-giving: social comparison.

Research shows that when we compare our gift to what others receive, we’re more prone to get upset. A USC study tested this out by giving out packs of M&Ms — there were folks who got the candies alone and pairs. Some got two packs and some got one pack. The ones who were alone were fine either way, whether they got one pack of M&Ms or two, but when you introduced another person into the mix, they eyed who got two packs with envy.

“Say you’re at a white elephant, all those gifts are silly, and we’d probably be OK if we didn’t have those gifts. But you get weirdly jealous or upset about how your gift ranks against the other gifts,” she said. “There’s a huge social comparison … even though on the grand scheme of things, these gifts aren’t that exciting.”

It’s a good takeaway while shopping for kids, especially siblings, who are prone to comparing their haul.

Experiences win

“I think people tend to want to give people gifts they can open, but experiences, in general, make people happier,” Buechel said.

A 2017 study shows that an experiential gift — such as golf lessons or a cooking course — can bring a relationship closer. It doesn’t matter whether they consume the gift together or not, the idea being that the person thinks of the gift-giver while consuming it.

Time is a good gift idea too, Buechel said. A recent study showed that participants valued $40 spent on time-saving tasks, such as meal delivery or help with errands, higher than when using the dough on materials goods, such as a nice bottle of wine. Simply put, saving time made them happier.

Having someone come over and clean someone’s house for them could be a great gift.

Eva Buechel

“Having someone come over and clean someone’s house for them could be a great gift,” Buechel said. “It could free up an entire day they could perhaps spend with their loved ones.”

Gratitude researcher Glenn Fox saw this anecdotally while doing workshops at USC Marshall. People were asked to keep gratitude journals. By and large, many of the top contenders had to do with time, he said.

Be thoughtful

Giving the gift of time is thoughtful and thoughtfulness resonates, Fox points out. Giving someone a gift requires thinking about their needs, their hobbies and what they like.

“The more we can focus on helping people with their own needs and show our ability to understand their perspective will probably lead to the best gifts,” said Fox, a researcher at USC Marshall’s Performance Science Institute.

Don’t forget to show grace, he said.

“One of the fastest ways to wipe out gratitude for a gift is to tell someone to be grateful,” he said.

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