With the fury of Black Friday upon us, it strikes me there are two ways to gear up for the impending madness: One is to spit-polish whatever credit card remains un-maxed, and target a friendly, neighborhood revolving door to bust down. The other may strike some shoppers as a tad soft, even un-American: Why not take a minute and actually think about the task that lies ahead?
After all, excessive holiday spending results in what economists refer to a “deadweight loss.” The economy as a whole—all of us, really—would be far better served if holiday spending were spread out more evenly throughout the year. Our buying decisions would be less manic, more thoughtful. Besides, who needs yet another tinny picture frame, one more bizarro tie, a gift card from a chain store teetering on the brink of Chapter 11?
“I’d like to think that if the presents I buy are all laid out on a table, unwrapped, the people for whom they were intended would know instantly which gifts were theirs.”
Lisa Grunwald, for one, doesn’t know from deadweight loss. Grunwald is a friend of mine, a talented novelist, a huge-hearted wife and mom, smart, funny, sardonic, immensely kind. As a shopper, though, she’s a retailer’s nightmare before Christmas, resolutely ambivalent about fighting the throngs in search of the latest this, the superfluous that. Grunwald is, you might say, what she doesn’t buy. The act of shopping leaves her cold. But amidst Grunwald’s ambivalence there’s one form of consumptive behavior at which she excels uniquely—and that’s buying gifts.
The key, she says, is to keep an eye ever-peeled for “the unexpected.” Stalking the unexpected is “an all-year-round, any-kind-of-weather sport,” she says. “Because the interests and tastes of my friends and family vary, the hunt for great gifts takes me all over the place—from vintage clothing boutiques to crafts fairs, to eBay.” But where Grunwald buys takes a distant backseat to what. “I’d like to think that if the presents I buy are all laid out on a table, unwrapped, the people for whom they were intended would know instantly which gifts were theirs.”
Without knowing it, Grunwald actually practices what academically accredited Buy Scholars theorize are the essential criteria that underlie true gift-giving prowess. Russell Belk occupies an endowed marketing chair at York University in Toronto, and is the author of numerous papers on consumer behavior, particularly the vagaries (emotional and material) of gift giving. In one of his landmark papers, Belk posits that a consummate gift is one that satisfies six conditions which, when laid against Lisa Grunwald’s M.O., confirm that she doesn’t just give good gift, she gives perfect gift. To wit:
1. The perfect gift calls on the giver to make “extraordinary sacrifice.”
By “sacrifice,” Belk doesn’t suggest that you pawn your departed mother’s handmade quilts to help pay for a $7,000 doghouse with Italian leather armchair (Neiman Marcus offered one such canine McMansion not long ago in one of its fabled Christmas Books, until recently monuments to conspicuous consumption). In Belk’s view, “sacrifice” needn’t entail financial sacrifice. In Grunwald’s case, sacrifice comes when she puts aside a challenging section of a novel she’s writing to carve out precious time to explore, say, an antiques barn, where she once found a 1940s telephone for her daughter.
The perfect gift isn’t one that begs for reciprocation, or sends a loud signal that you’re a big-time sport. The perfect gift, Belk tells us, is about the recipient, pas vous. Grunwald needs no coaching on this point. One year she happened to stumble into a mourning locket offered on eBay. There happened to be an “H” engraved on the front. Lisa’s stepmother’s late beloved dog was named Harry. Grunwald copped the piece, pasted a photo of the faithful Harry inside, then presented the locket to her stepmother one Christmas morning.
3. The perfect gift is “a luxury.”
By “luxury,” Belk doesn’t mean that a gift be festooned with LVs or interlocking Cs. As far as he’s concerned, anything that isn’t a necessity qualifies as a luxury (especially in these times). To buy and give someone underwear or socks, or mop and bucket, are indeed worthy acts should the recipient be in need of them. But such things don’t exactly convey that you deem the recipient to be in some way special or unique. Grunwald needs no mentoring on this point, either. When her husband, Stephen, was a kid, he loved a book titled Little Lefty, one of those corny, Horatio Alger-in-spikes tales that boys love, or used to, before PlayStations came along. He would often reminisce about the book “the way an immigrant talks about the Old Country.” So one year she hunted down a tattered copy of Little Lefty—I just saw another online for $1.99—gift-wrapped it, and handed it over. “He not only wept when he opened the package,” Grunwald recalls, “but he reread it right away and—somehow—didn't find it lacking.”
4. The perfect gift is appropriate to the recipient.
Each of Grunwald’s above-cited offerings qualifies as appropriate and then some. So, too, was the canvas tote she bought one year for her friend Cathy. On the side were the words “It Is What It Is,” a phrase that Cathy happens to use, inveterately. What’s more appropriate than letting someone know you actually listen to what they say, right down to their catchphrases and throwaway lines?
5. The perfect gift is “surprising.”
If surprise weren’t universally appreciated, Professor Belk says, wrapping paper would never have come into being. Surprise is why we why so love getting presents on days that aren’t holidays. Last year, Grunwald’s daughter performed in a school production of The Sound of Music. But she didn’t think to give her daughter a bouquet of roses. Instead, she bought her a huge pair of glove forms. Why? “So I could give her a big hand,” Grunwald answers.
6. “The perfect gift is one that the recipient desires.”
Belk says that you don’t have to jump through hoops, spend a long weekend clicking through eBay, or schlepping out to an antiques barn, if you wish to spring the perfect gift. Santa didn’t get to be Santa by ripping children’s wish-lists into shreds. The words “It’s just what I always wanted!” amount to ringing confirmation that you’ve bagged the perfect gift. For Grunwald’s 13-year-old son, for whom “it’s all technology, all the time,” Grunwald says, a shopping trip to the Apple Store ends with a double-barreled bang. “Virtually any object or piece of software we take home will delight him and, since I share his addiction to all that stuff, we can browse together, while saying, usually in the same breath: “Whoa, how cool is that?”
A genuine smile on a kid’s face—anybody’s face—that’s the gold standard.
Lee Eisenberg’s new book is Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What. Excerpts and the author’s blog can be found at LeeEisenberg.com.