When holiday shopping, we defer to gift cards and items on wish lists because we think they’ll be appreciated—or at least not disappointing. But these gifts are rarely memorable. And they’re unlikely to get the gushing, “Oh my gosh, this is so thoughtful, how did you know?” response that gift givers would love to hear.
Everyone wants to give the perfect gift. But ultimately, and increasingly, we end up buying gift cards or items off of the recipient’s wish list. More than 80% of shoppers plan to purchase gift cards, and for the seventh year in a row, gift cards top the National Retail Federation’s list of most wanted gifts.
It’s understandable. In an era where entitlement often smothers gratitude, it’s harder than ever to nail the perfect gift. And with so much to choose from and pickier-than-ever recipients, at the very least we know a gift card or wish list item won’t cause eye-rolling, or move the recipient to re-gifting or selling the present online.
Though consumers say they want gift cards, for many the gift exchange feels like Santa’s simply doling out paychecks. Here’s how Bobby, one of the many consumers I talk to in my line of research, described last Christmas: “There were almost no boxes or wrapping. We all just gave each other gift cards and then thought about what we’d buy with them. My sisters both went online to start shopping.” Saundra put it this way, “I used to love getting cash from my grandparents, so I guess this is the same sort of thing, but the gift cards feel kind of boring — like it’s just about money, not about a gift.”
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While gift cards and wish list picks are never going to land in the worst gift ever category, there’s something missing in the transaction: relationship-fortifying thoughtfulness and the emotional boost that accompanies surprise.
For the benefit of anyone hoping to be a champion gift-giver, I asked people to share with me the most memorable, special, or just plain best gifts they’ve received over the years. Here’s what they said, categorized into different types of presents, and implicit in each story is a lesson that can be learned about what makes a gift truly great:
A Gift That Saves the Day
A basic household appliance as a thoughtful gift? Indeed. Mary Ann’s eyes welled up when she told me about the washing machine that her grandmother gave her. “My washer broke beyond repair and I was fretting about how I was going to get a new one,” she recalled. “My grammy, who was not rich, took me to Sears and told me to pick one out for my Christmas gift. It was so generous and so unexpected.”
Save-the-day gifts are, admittedly, often costly. But they don’t have to be. Candice thinks one of the best gifts she’s ever received was computer repair training from her son-in-law.
The Gift of Yourself
Similar to the computer help received by Candice, those who give presents that includes their personal time, effort, and participation get a leg up toward becoming top-notch gift-givers. “My wife gave me tickets to see my favorite band, Furthur,” shared Jason. “But the best part is that she agreed to go with me even though she’s not much of a fan. She went with a really good attitude and having her with me was the best gift she could have given me.”
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Annetta’s sister spent a year crafting a custom-designed needlepoint pillow that Annetta says she will treasure her whole life. “She did all that work for me, and it’s beautiful,” she said. Several parents said their all-time favorite gifts were customized coupon books or gift certificates good for things like yard work on demand or simply kisses from their kids.
The Impossible, Un-Gettable Gift
Many of the adults I spoke with mentioned gifts they were given as children as among their lifetime favorites. Diana said she positively craved Gumby’s pal Pokey, and David said he begged Santa for a toy Colt 45 gun. Without funds of their own, they were at the mercy of their parents’ generosity because they couldn’t buy these toys themselves. The wanting of something that’s out of reach intensifies the experience of getting and solidifies memory. It also puts givers on par with Santa.
This idea explains why Mitch felt a similar level of joy when he got tickets to a sold-out sporting event from his best friend. The same is true for Patrice, whose mother gave her a one-of-a-kind family painting that she’d admired for years.
The Gift of Support
Helping a loved one ease into a potentially difficult transition can be a wonderful gift, sending a clear message that you support the recipient through and through. “My husband hadn’t been thrilled about what we’d been eating since I started on this health kick,” recalled Janice. “But he gave me a juicer! It was such an act of support.”
Similarly, Jeffrey’s parents bought him a warm winter coat, boots, gloves and a muffler as a means of supporting his moving to Chicago for a new job. According to Jeffrey, “It was a kind of a send-off kit and it meant a lot to me.”
The Thoughtful Never-Expected Gift
We’ve all explicitly asked for something we either needed or desperately wanted, and we’ve of course been forever grateful when those requests were answered. But nothing quite matches the gift giver who shows their knowledge and appreciation of another person by finding exactly the right present, without the recipient ever asking for it—or perhaps even thinking of it.
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Surprise opens the memory gates, which is why such gifts are remembered fondly for years afterward. Sabrina, for instance, was both shocked and thrilled when her children all chipped in to buy her an airplane ticket to attend her high school reunion. At the time, Sabrina had no idea that her children were aware she’d been wrestling with the decision about whether or not to go.
Gifts for someone related to a favorite hobby can be terrific, but also so-so since the givers rarely understand and appreciate the subject matter as much as the recipient. Whiskey lover Todd, for instance, told me this of the scotch he’s often given for Christmas: “It’s appreciated but not what I’d call memorable.” Last year, however, a friend noticed that Todd had a special preference for scotches produced in one particular area of Scotland and gave him a bottle from that specific region. “Most people don’t know scotch well enough to know the difference,” said Todd. “He put some thought into it.”
I’ve spoken with golfers, knitters and motorcycle enthusiasts, all have similar stories: The best gifts are the ones that go beyond the obvious and are something truly unique to the tastes of the recipient. Like the gift that Robert’s daughter gave him – a tool for fishing golf balls out of water. “She remembered a story I told about hitting the water on three holes,” he said. “It was a cute gift … and thank god not another box of golf balls.”
The point of these anecdotes is that thinking deeply about what a recipient might like and searching down an unexpected treasure for that person is the sort of thoughtfulness and caring that signifies how much the individual means to you. It also strengthens the relationship between giver and recipient — the best, most valuable gift of all.
Kit Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is a co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y.