Wednesday October 23 2019

Tech is changing our gift giving culture

Yiannis Faf, co-founder of WhatWeWant, explains how technology is transforming the way we give and receive gifts

Yiannis Faf

YIANNIS FAF | Cofounder of WhatWeWant

Tech is changing our gift giving culture

The societal norms that govern gift-giving are curious; each culture has its own unique set of rules that dictate when presents are given and what form they take. However, in recent years a global phenomenon has shifted the way society as a whole approaches the practice.

From e-commerce platforms through to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, technology has completely transformed much of our daily lives, including gift giving culture. Online shopping is perhaps the most obvious example of this, with many of our presents now purchased from online retailers. In fact, approximately three quarters of consumers in the UK said they buy half of their Christmas presents online, with this trend mirrored across other occasions such as birthdays and weddings.

This trend is not new. Interestingly, though, technology has changed the psychology of gift giving, and is starting to reshape cultural norms in this space.

Convenience is king

In a general sense, as most of us would appreciate, technology offers people an easy way to search for the perfect gift for their loved ones. Rather than spending hours trawling through bricks and mortar stores, people can now search the web from the comfort of their own homes.

Online retailers, most notably Amazon, have mastered the “one click purchase”, which makes it extraordinarily easy for people to make a purchase on their laptop or phone within seconds.

Convenience is everything to the modern consumer, which is inevitably infiltrating the world of gift giving. At WhatWeWant we have seen this development first hand, with it becoming increasingly clear that people want to simplify and speed up the way gifts are given – apps and online platforms are opening up countless opportunities for us to do just that.  

The social (media) influence

It is impossible to talk about technology’s impact on gift-giving without exploring the impact of social media. As platforms that enable users to build vast networks of friends, family members and colleagues, it is only natural social media would become a fast and convenient way to give gifts online.

A paper published in 2018 by Facebook explored the increasingly common trend of “digital gift exchanges” – the act of sending an individual a digital gift, whether that’s a charitable donation or a gift card.

Notably, it uncovered that as more people opted to give their connections digital gifts (typically on their birthday), more Facebook users would then return the favour; the study found that when a person received a gift on Facebook for their birthday, they were then 56% more likely to also give an online gift through the platform. What’s more, it found that these gifts were becoming replacements for offline gifts about half the time.

This specific example illustrates gift-giving’s movement into the digital space. Not only are people now shopping online for their presents, but the entire interaction and process is increasingly happening digitally, with social networks driving this change.

But, of course, there is a bigger picture to see – social media is impacting gift giving in another way by changing the way we discover and share new experiences.

From spa retreats through to hot airballoon rides, the modern consumer stumbles across a vast number of potential gift ideas (for themselves or others) on their daily social media scrollings. What’s more, when partaking in these activities, people will use Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter to share what they’re doing with followers, in turn inspiring more people to consider it for an upcoming special occasion.

The rise of the experiential gift

This leads us onto another pertinent point: the proliferation of tech over the past three decades can also be accredited with fuelling the rise of the experiential gift. As opposed to material gifts, experiential gifts allow the recipient to enjoy an experience, which can range from going to a festival, to touring a brewery or taking a cake-making class. Purchases typically take the form of vouchers, which can be found within the ever-growing web of online marketplaces like Groupon and Treatwell.

The ease of finding, and purchasing, gifts online has seen people opt to spend more money on desirable experiences over physical gifts. During the 2018 festive season, for instance, the UK spent approximately £1.6 billion on experience gifts. Meanwhile, consumer sentiments mimic this statistic; research conducted by Barclaycard exploring the value of the ‘experience economy’ found that half of consumers (52%) would rather pay for a good experience than splash out on material possessions such as clothes and shoes.

Gift cards and vouchers may have existed for a long time, but our movement towards online shopping has evidently shifted our focus away from the physical. Today, consumers use the Internet to find all manner of interesting, quirky and adventurous experiences to share as gifts with those close to them; this is notably different from the standard practices seen across previous generations.

Importantly, experiential gifts are typically more expensive than physical items of years gone by. People are trading in DVDs and socks for meals at fancy restaurants or an evening’s wine tasting. The result is that experiential gifts often require multiple benefactors, which some ‘gift list’ websites provide.

Indeed, this was a key consideration in the creation of WhatWeWant – we realised that many people would rather have one special present (often an experience) rather than smaller material items. As such, using online or mobile technologies to enable friends to come together and pool their funds to buy someone their dream gift is becoming increasingly important.

Long-term benefits

Technology has meant that more people have access to the experience economy, which as we have seen has changed their gift giving habits. But what are the longer-term implications of this trend?

The amount that consumers spend on unwanted gifts is eye-watering. For instance, according to a recent survey, more than half of Brits receive at least one unwanted gift each Christmas. We must therefore consider the long-term value that comes with experience gifts, which offer long-lasting memories and the opportunity to try new things.

Besides this, experience gifts encourage people to be social and spend quality time with their loved ones; a benefit that is difficult to put a price tag on.

Yet things are likely to go further still. Gift lists, for birthdays and weddings in particular, are becoming increasingly common, offering people the chance to show others exactly what presents they would like. Thanks to social networks, online shopping and creative new ideas, one would expect gift giving to become further entrenched in the digital world, enabling people to connect and share gifts in a faster and more convenient way – one that will also cut down on unwanted presents.


"From e-commerce platforms through to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, technology has completely transformed much of our daily lives, and gift giving is no exception"
Yiannis Faf


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