A good gift doesn’t even have to be that labor intensive. In fact, according to Gopnik, one of the best things you can do when you give a kid a gift is not throw away the box it came in. “Boxes end up being a fantastic toy,” she said. “You can turn it into a boat, you can turn it into a house, you can ride in it—there’s very good play value in a cardboard box.”
DON’T SHOP ALL AT ONCE
You may feel tempted to get your gift-buying out of the way all in one go. Certainly it saves time on transportation and waiting in line. But that may be exactly the wrong way to play it. Ravi Dhar, a professor at the Yale School of Management and director of the Center for Customer Insights there, has studied something he calls “spending momentum,” a phenomenon that makes it easier to spend money once you’ve already spent a bunch of it. That means that if you’re buying gifts for 10 people in the space of a few hours, you’re more likely to spend more than you would otherwise be inclined to.
“To fight momentum,” Dhar said, “separate it out.” One smart way to do this, he added, is to divide up your list based on the sorts of people you’re buying gifts for, and how much you want to spend on them. In other words, don’t buy gifts for your acquaintances at work right after you’ve bought a bunch of expensive presents for your immediate family—your frame of reference will be thrown off and you’ll wind up spending more than is reasonable. “You end up overspending because the amounts look relatively small compared to the other gifts that you’re buying for people. Suddenly, it seems OK to spend $50.”
HOLD BACK, WRAPPERS
Perhaps the most iconic image associated with gift-giving is the shining, beautifully wrapped box being giddily torn open by a recipient who can’t wait to find out what’s inside. On the face of it, gorgeous gift presentation seems to imply that the contents will be of equally high quality. But this can backfire: Studies have shown that if you want your gifts to leave your loved ones satisfied, you’re better off giving them in a plain, understated package. “What we find is that fancy wrapping can often be counterproductive,” said Yale’s Dhar, who oversaw the studies with his colleague Nathan Novemsky. “Typically, when people open the fancier wrapping, they feel a little bit disappointed.” Instead, he said, the goal should be to manage expectations: Wrap presents in a way that prevents people from fantasizing too much about what they’re going to get.
DON’T BE SHY ABOUT FOLLOW-UP
Part of what makes gift-giving so exciting is that it usually lasts just a few seconds. Maybe the recipient drags things out a bit by opening your card first and making a show of reading it before moving onto the actual gift, but generally speaking, it tends to be over in a flash. And it’s important to remember that what happens after the gift has been handed over is just as important. A recent study by Yan Zhang from the National University of Singapore Business School and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business underscored this point. Oddly enough, they found, it’s only when your gift is a dud that you’re likely to get credit for the thought you put into it. If your gift is a hit, the recipient will be happy, but won’t be prompted to wonder about what was going through your head when you picked it out.
One way to interpret this finding is that it’s always worth doing the work of explaining your motivations and reasoning after you’ve made landfall: If the present is a failure, you’ll get points for effort, and if it’s a triumph, you’ll be appreciated all the more by drawing the recipient’s attention away from the innate quality of the gift and reminding them of how much care you put into choosing it.
BUT WHAT ABOUT YOU?
Though most of us hesitate to admit it, one of the best parts about giving gifts at the holidays is getting a bunch in return. But how do you maximize your chances of getting what you want? Some research simply underscores the value of straight shooting: Studies by Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and Francis Flynn of the Stanford University Graduate School of Business suggest that the most effective way to end up with presents you’re happy with is to just tell people exactly what they should get you, and not dance around the issue out of modesty. But if being specific is not an option, and what you want is to generically increase your holiday haul, consider the work of Stephen Leider, a professor of operations and management science at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.Continued...