Helen Edwards: E-commerce feels wrong in the ritual of giving

Helen Edwards
Helen Edwards

In a recent piece of informal research - look, I asked a few people - the discovery was made that choosing and buying a gift online can promote feelings of guilt.

It somehow doesn't seem hard enough just to tick a box; the requisite effort hasn't been put in, and, even if the recipient may not know that, the giver does, and it feels less right.

If my own research was sketchy, non-robust, non-triangulated and, well, downright suspect on all accepted practitioner criteria, then I can at least take comfort that it corroborates one of the underlying themes of some very thorough, very well-conducted studies from the world of academia.

You'd be amazed, frankly, at how much academic thought has been poured into the subject of how, why and with what feelings and expectations human beings experience the ritual of giving.

The anthropologist Marcel Mauss got the ball rolling with his seminal 1925 essay citing reciprocity as the force that drives the impulse to give. In the 60s, sociologists such as Schwartz piled in, looking into what they termed 'symbolic interactionism': gifts acting as symbols for expressing the giver's perception not just of the receiver, but of self.

Since 1979, Russell Belk has covered most of the bases, from gift as a tool of communication to 'agapic giving'. (No, I didn't know what it meant either - the dictionary gives 'self-sacrificing, all-encompassing love'.)

It was Belk's 1996 paper that explored what my own informal probing threw up - that our mental ideal of the 'perfect gift' entails 'extraordinary effort' on the part of the giver.

Is this one of the reasons why the proportion of online sales in the 'giving season' is lower than one might intuitively have thought? It is still less than 10% in the US, despite all the hype around 'Cyber Monday' (see '30 seconds', right). Perhaps online retailers could do more to establish codes and cues that reinforce the effort of choosing, such as adding customisation ideas to standard gifts.

Meanwhile, physical retailers could hit back by incorporating tasteful stickers in their gift-wrap service, that say something like: 'This gift was personally chosen at our Regent Street store.'

The tussle between online and physical retailing is set to be one of the fascinating themes of the next few years, one that will move beyond the early battleground of price to embrace more nuanced human motivations. The insights on giving show why consumer behaviour at a general level is always worth studying, irrespective of category.

I will close this final column of the year with a nod to all the marketing and behavioural academics whose work I plunder most weeks. It is always thoroughly researched, peer-reviewed and clearly referenced, yet given freely for practitioners to share.

Yes, the arcane prose can get in the way a bit, but that is merely like the wrapping on a parcel under the tree; tear it open, toss it aside, dig down and invariably you will find something valuable in there into which real thought - and effort - has been put.

I may not be able to reciprocate, but I can at least say thanks.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand. She is a former PPA business columnist of the year.

Follow her on Twitter: @helenedw

30 SECONDS ON: Cyber Monday

- In the US, Black Friday is retailers' post-Thanksgiving winter sales kick off and the busiest shopping day in the calendar. Many online stores recognised a sales jump the following Monday, and in 2005 it was christened 'Cyber Monday' by a Shop.org report. Web retailers then started offering special discounts to accelerate the day's spending.

- Cyber Monday has been going from strength to strength, with 2012 sales estimated at $1.5bn, up from $1.25bn a year ago and more than double the 2007 figure. IBM worked out that the average shopper parted with close to $200 last year.

- Spending rises at lunchtime, slows during commuting hours, and then peaks in the evening.

- Amazon.com sold 158 items every second. Among the most popular deals was a Kindle Fire for $129, down from $159.

- ChannelAdvisor, which helps merchants sell more on websites, states that online purchases account for about 9% of all 'holiday season' sales.

- Soon we might end up with a week of days encouraging us to spend: non-profit 92Y's 'Giving Tuesday' aims to spike charity donations in the 24 hours after Cyber Monday, and already has 2000 organisations - including the Red Cross and The Salvation Army - signed up.

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