Ellie Daforge
Coffee is Not Why Millennials are Broke Ellie Daforge

People are hard to shop for

Photo by Kira auf der Heide via Unsplash

“Oh, you shouldn’t have. Really…”

A lot of people will be saying that this year. Seventy-seven percent of people are planning to return some of their holiday gifts.

Returning a gift to the store, once considered tacky, is now the norm. People are much more selective about what they keep. One year I returned an item in early January, and the returns line went halfway around the department store.

But there’s still an air of secrecy about it. You can’t say you’re going to return a gift without seeming rude. Ask people to include a gift receipt with your holiday present, and they’ll usually look shocked.

If there’s no gift receipt, many people will resort to donating or consigning items. Online clothing reseller thredUP gets so many brand-new items each January, it has compiled a list of the “most purged holiday gifts.” (Last year, ruffle dresses were not well-received.) ThredUP also has a list of the least purged clothing, shoes, and accessories, if you want to get a head start on your shopping. Apparently, Everlane is a safe bet.

Joel Waldfogel wrote in Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, that people know what they want for themselves, but aren’t nearly as efficient at predicting what other people want. Unless a gift recipient tells you exactly what they’re looking for, you’re “shooting in the dark” to find something that they will enjoy. Holiday gifts, then, are just doomed to fail.

It’s easier to shop for young kids, who will write lists to Santa or flat-out tell their families what they want. And many other celebrations make it easy to select a present. When a couple gets married, they sign up for a wedding registry, and people select gifts that the couple has chosen. Same with baby showers. But if you make a wist list for the winter holidays, people will think you’re presumptive.

At certain points of our life — when we’re kids, when we’re getting married or having a baby — we suddenly need new stuff. Kids need toys, clothes and books. When we get married and move into a new home, we need kitchen stuff; when we have a baby, we need a crib, changing table, and a mountain of diapers.

But for the rest of us, when the holidays roll around, we usually have selected and bought everything we need. The chance that a friend or family member will buy something we haven’t thought of is really slim.

We’d like to believe that we know our families well enough to buy something they’d enjoy. Sometimes we do. I’m always delighted when someone gives me a gift that I wouldn’t have found, but I enjoy.

But many people don’t have that intuition or luck when shopping for others. We’re supposed to know what people want, without asking — but if that’s the case, why do people say that their spouse, probably the one person they know best, is the most difficult person to shop for? No wonder shopping for gifts causes people so much stress.

Holiday ads don’t help. A viral ad for a $2,200 Peloton bike was skewered for being bizarre and unrealistic. Turns out that in real life, surprising your spouse with exercise equipment is not a good idea.

If you want to bypass the guessing game, there’s always the option of gift cards. Many people think they’re impersonal, but nearly half of people say they would appreciate receiving one. (I suppose you just have to find out which half your gift recipient is in.) I don’t always know what size and style of clothing someone wears, but I might remember a particular restaurant they’d enjoy a gift card for.

Another trend is to donate to a cause in someone’s name. Last year, I told everyone I didn’t need gifts, and to donate to a local charity instead. I didn’t miss the gifts at all, nor did I have guilt over donating or returning items. The next summer, the charity (an animal shelter) sent me a pamphlet explaining all the good they did with their donations. One was an incubator that allowed them to take care of premature kittens. How cool is that?

Many people still cherish the tradition of gift-giving. In that case, you can temper expectations by talking a little bit about what people want, or doing a Secret Santa exchange. You can’t always avoid the returns line, and that’s okay. Sometimes, it really is the thought that counts.

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