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Gifts Must Have More Meaning

This year will go down in the history books as one when consumer shopping behavior changed irrecoverably. With people fearing for their health, they turned online to satisfy more of their shopping needs. And with only certain stores open throughout the retail closures, they reevaluated their needs versus wants when it came to shopping. Needs won.

However, one thing didn’t change. “Shopping behaviors remain a means to an emotional end,” says consumer psychologist Chris Gray, Psy.D. of Buycology. Even when shopping for necessities at the grocery store, the brands one selects satisfy emotional needs to express one’s identity, to explore and discover, to meet aspirations and to feel safe and secure, Gray relates.

One of the most emotional of consumer purchases is selecting a gift and that is one need that never went away throughout this year of unprecedented turmoil and change. In fact, it may have accelerated among certain segments of consumers who couldn’t celebrate holidays, birthdays, and other special events in person because of social distancing concerns.

“Gifting is not just about expressing care for another person, but there is a lot of identity wrapped up in what someone gives to another person,” Gray shares. “It says something about you, that you are a thoughtful and caring person.”

In research conducted by my company, Unity Marketing, we estimate the gifting market to be over a $100 billion opportunity, but that may be defining gifts too narrowly, suggests Gray.

“Think about the greeting card aisles in all those Walmart or Target stores. That is one of the few categories in those stores that is always a gift,” he says. “But if you look at those departments, those aisles are treated much like toilet paper, just there. They lack context around how meaningful it is to select and give a gift. This is important for retailers and brands to consider.”

That context is not just about the social bond between the gifter and recipient, for example how much one cares about the gift recipient or how the gifter feels about the relationship. The gifter’s self-worth is tied up in the gift selected.

Due to the radical adjustments people have made as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Gary foresees gifting will take on even deeper meaning in the future.

“The pandemic has created a lot of anxiety. We’re reminded the world is not permanent. By giving gifts and things that are enduring and are a lasting expression of care, it helps us soothe a bit of that anxiety,” Gray shares.

His observation that people will choose more caring gifts following the pandemic is reinforced in a new study from DeBeers in a Diamond Insight Flash report, based upon surveys representative sample of adult U.S. consumers.

Yes, the study is self-serving: it concludes that diamonds are the perfect gift to express deep emotions and lasting value. But that doesn’t negate the other important findings around consumers’ motivations and attitudes about gift purchasing after the pandemic.

For example, 45% of those surveyed said they were likely to buy fewer but better things. Better things usually means more expensive things, so retailers can anticipate shoppers spending more as they look for items that are personally more meaningful for them to give. That is the self-esteem part of the gifting equation.

As for the recipient, a meaningful gift trumps items that are more practical, functional, or fun this year. Over half (56%) of those surveyed said gifts should be meaningful and communicate how important and valued the gift recipient is.

Another meaningful message that gifts will carry this year is gratitude that we and those we love have come through this crisis whole. This may make the gift card – the never-fail, fallback gift choice for the lazy or unimaginative – less popular this year.

“As far as people wanting to express care and provide enduring mementos, it would lead me to conclude that gift cards will decline, since gift cards are usually a gift of convenience over thoughtfulness,” Gray says.

On the other hand, Gray sees that with so many people out of work and suffering financially, a gift card may actually be the most thoughtful and useful type of gift this year, especially for retailers like Walmart and Target where the dollars gifted can go further.

“Helpfulness is an interesting perspective when thinking about gifting,” he concludes. “After what we have all been through, help may just be what someone needs right now.”

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