Monday, December 10, 2007


My parents were married on this date in 1955. While both have long since passed, not a day has gone by that they haven't been in my thoughts. I believe that they are together still.

I was reading the "magazine" section of this past Sunday's newspaper and came across an article that was entertaining to read because it was so well written, but partly the reason why this particular holiday season is something of a downer (thanks to years of retail work). Oh, the it is:

It's the Receipt That Counts
It's almost blasphemous to buy a present nowadays and not include a gift receipt. When did all of us gift givers become glorified ATMs?
By Beth Teitell November 25, 2007

I was handing a friend a present recently, a nice one, with a card and everything, when I heard an apology coming out of my mouth. "There's no gift receipt. I'm sorry." My friend was gracious, but I knew I'd been rude. After all, who saddles someone with a present these days that can't be easily liquefied? Not most of us. Last year, 57 percent of consumers enclosed receipts, up from 49 percent in 2005, according to the National Retail Federation. It's still the thought that counts, but sadly, in 2007, the way to express that thought is not by adding a hint of your own personality or hunting down a unique item, but by ensuring the recipient gets full value at the returns desk.

Can an intervention be performed on a national level? I sure hope so, because every year around this time, Americans spend weeks schlepping around searching for merchandise to give to other people to schlep around and return. (Is there a shadowy schlepping lobby we should investigate?) Someone stop us, please. The Washington, D.C.-based retail federation says that one-third of consumers return one or more gifts, which means that if you glimpsed the action on mall security tapes, it would be like watching a movie forward and then backward. Sweaters, CDs, and small appliances would fly off the shelves, then magically reappear.

Even if you're lucky enough to give a gift that sticks, it probably won't be fully appreciated. That sounds pessimistic, but a number of studies have confirmed a depressing phenomenon called the "dead-weight loss of Christmas." That's the term economists use to describe the difference between what I spend on a gift for you ($100, say) and the value you put on it (about $82 - ingrate). In his work on the subject, University of Pennsylvania economist Joel Waldfogel has written, "People get about 18 percent more satisfaction, per dollar spent, on things they buy for themselves than on things they receive as gifts." That doesn't count sentimental value, but in an age in which many gifts that aren't returned are routinely re-gifted or sold on eBay, meaning doesn't count for much.

As if another red flag were needed, a new federation study found that gift cards - a less crass, less convenient version of cash - are the most desired gift this year. Why don't we just start cutting one another checks and skip the middlemen? Since Waldfogel had so clearly described the problem, I asked him for a solution. He suggested making a charitable donation in the intended recipient's name. That's nice in concept, but given how tyrannical recipients have become, I can already see how things will go. You write a generous check to a worthy cause on your friend's behalf, and next thing you know, he's insisting that he get the tax deduction, too.

With two shopping days behind us, and The Holidays gathering strength like a tropical storm whipping into a killer hurricane, is there a better way? Maybe the solution isn't anything fancy. How about simply giving people what they really want - a link from your blog to theirs? Or, how about spending time with "loved" ones instead of giving them gifts? I like this idea, but if you mention it to people, you get push-back: They want to buy their way out of togetherness.

All this negativity was making me nostalgic for the good old days, whenever those were, so I called Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas. He read me a few lines from a short story called "Christmas; or, The Good Fairy," in which the main character laments the state of the holidays. "There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got." Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that, back in 1850.

So it's hardly a new problem. Until we get it figured out (there's always the next century), maybe the best thing we can do as gift givers is merely set the expectations low: Just be glad we're not - yet - complete doormats, required not only to spend, wrap, and mail, but also to write thank you notes to ourselves, too.

Beth Teitell, a Boston-based writer, contributes regularly to the Globe Magazine. E-mail her at


Airam said...

You're right. The whole gift receipt thing is stupid. I do it because with sizes these days being so skewed I don't know if things will fit right (especially for kids).

Christmas is way too commercialized for my liking.

radioactive girl said...

I completely agree. I actually prefer home made gifts because they come from the heart. Even if it turns out to be something I don't have a particular use for, at least it means something. My mom is the best at giving home made gifts. Each year she makes a blanket or something for each of my kids. She once apologized for not spending tons of money like my husband's family does, and I told her I think my kids appreciate the gifts from her much much more.

Chris said...

Airam - It's the whole commercialization that kills it for me. I don't wanna see Christmas displays as they are breaking down Halloween.

Radioactive Girl - Homemade gifts are beautiful. Your mom sounds like a very special lady - like mother, lik daughter.