Everyone wants to give the perfect gift. But ultimately, and increasingly, we end up buying gift cards or items off of the recipient’s online 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 will be appreciated. But these types of 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 most gift givers would love to hear.

Though consumers say they want gift cards, for many it feels like Santa’s simply doling out paychecks. Here’s how Bobby 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.”

While gift cards and wish list picks are never going to land in the worst gift ever category – there’s something missing: 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 or special gifts they’ve received. Here’s what they said:

Save the Day
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. 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 and training from her son-in-law.

Give of Yourself

Similar to Candice’s computer help, those who give a gift that includes their participation get a leg up toward becoming a champion gift-giver. “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.”  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.”  Several parents said their all-time favorite gifts were coupon books or gift certificates for yard work, homework or simply kisses from their kids.

Honor a Transition

At the top of this list of gifts that mark and honor life transitions were the many stories I heard about engagement rings - obviously this is a memorable gift for what it signifies.  But any gift that marks or honors a life transition can become a favorite gift. For example, Janice feels this way about her new juicer, “My husband hadn’t been thrilled about what we’d been eating since I started on this health kick. 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 when he landed a job in Chicago. According to Jeffrey, “It was a kind of a send-off kit and it meant a lot to me.”

Give the Un-Gettable

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—they couldn’t buy these toys themselves.  Wanting intensifies the experience of getting and solidifies memory – it also puts givers on par with Santa.

Which explains why Mitch described 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 family painting that she’d admired for years.

Listen, Learn and Surprise Them

While all of us have either desperately needed or wanted something that we asked for explicitly and are forever grateful to have received, nothing quite matches the gift giver that shows their knowledge and appreciation of another person by finding just the right gift and surprising them. Surprise opens the memory gates. Thinking and searching for an unexpected treasure is the sort of thoughtfulness and caring that signifies and strengthens a bond - the most valuable gift of all.

Sabrina was both shocked and thrilled when her children all chipped in to buy her an airplane ticket to attend her high school reunion. Sabrina said that she wasn’t aware that her children knew she’d been wrestling with the decision about whether or not to go.

Gifts for someone with a hobby they’re passionate about can easily be either a great gift of a mediocre one. The difference is in the listening.  Whiskey lover, Todd, told me that he’s often given scotch for Christmas. “It’s appreciated but not what I’d call memorable.” One year a friend gave Todd a bottle of scotch from a region of Scotland that produces a product uniquely suited to his taste.  According to Todd, “most people don’t know scotch well enough to know the difference. He put some thought into it.” I’ve spoken with golfers, knitters and motorcycle enthusiasts that all have similar stories—the best gifts are the ones that go beyond the obvious and are something unique to the tastes or needs of the recipient.  Like the gift that Robert’s daughter give him—a tool for fishing golf balls out of water. “She remembered a story I told about hitting the water on three holes—it was a cute gift and thank god not another box of golf balls.”

About the Author

Kit Yarrow

Kit Yarrow is a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

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