December 26, 2013

Observations on gift-giving in the 21st century

Here is a WSJ article about online shoppers getting left high and dry this week, as their orders had not arrived according to the "get it by Christmas" promise. Demand was quite a bit higher than they'd predicted, the "get it by Christmas" deadline keeps moving later (making crunch time more overloaded), not to mention delays from bad weather. These troubles affected both the online retailers and the shipping companies.

The worst part of getting left out in the cold by Christmas Eve is that it's too late to order something else online and receive the replacement gift by Christmas day.

I never order gifts "in advance," i.e. during the Black Friday melee weekend or even the first half of December. That whole way of doing it is part of the broader trend toward getting Christmas out of the way as soon as possible, and just quickly going through the bare minimum of motions on Christmas day.

They start selling decorations the day after Halloween, and then try to get us to complete our shopping around Black Friday. You may even wrap the suckers up, or if you're having them shipped directly to their recipients, you let them know not to open until Christmas. What is there left to do during the Twelve Days of Christmas? Nothing, really. Just biding your time, wishing the stupid holiday would hurry up so you can exchange the packages that have been sitting around for several weeks.

As with any element of a ritual that gets displayed too early, this deflates the power from what used to be a more intense season. When Christmas trees and other decorations go up a month ahead of time, they become taken for granted by Christmas day. When Christmas music starts regularly playing on Black Friday, we're too accustomed to the songs for them to sound special in the days before Christmas. Ditto the flavor of Christmas-y food like candy canes (peppermint mocha, peppermint bark, peppermint bacon cheeseburgers). And when those presents have been sitting out for weeks, whether wrapped or not, we no longer feel exciting anticipation by Christmas day -- that lasts for a little bit, but then turns to annoyance after our curiosity has become frustrated for more than 10 or 15 days in a row.

Now we see another great advantage of waiting until the proper time for gift shopping, rather than doing it early and treating it like something you've crossed off a list, like Christmas is a series of items in a checklist that you can't wait to be done with soon enough and get to the New Year's party already. By procrastinating until the week before Christmas, I wasn't left gift-less yesterday.

When you shop at a store, and they don't have an item that they'd promised would be there, you can immediately go to a backup plan and buy something else at that same store, or go to a nearby store and get the intended gift or something different. Whatever happens, you're coming home with something, rather than hoping that the stuff you ordered online will make it by the promised date, with no buffer zone in case something goes wrong.

In fact, I'd been looking for a certain book to get my brother, which I saw on the Urban Outfitters website. I stopped by the store before coming home for Christmas vacation, and they didn't have it. No big deal, I'll just hit up Barnes & Noble when I get home. The computer inside the store said they had a copy of it, in Humor, but it was neither in Humor nor in the special promotional tables where Customer Service said it would be. Dang, looks like I might strike out. But we were going to travel to meet my brother the day before Christmas, so I'd try a bookstore on the way to his house from the airport. The first B&N didn't have it, but they told me which nearby branches did. And son-of-a-bitch, the next one on the way home had a copy -- bought at 4:30pm Christmas Eve. But still, in my hands, and wrapped and ready for Christmas, not stuck in shipping limbo with no backup plan.

Not to mention that I didn't have to pay shipping costs -- and not because I bought $75 or $100 or whatever the limit is for decently fast free shipping to kick in. Or have to pay an annual membership fee to get "free" shipping.

It blows my mind how much people want to inconvenience themselves simply to satisfy their cocooning desire to not have to visit a store, be around other shoppers, and interact with the sales staff. You have to waste too much time figuring out what to get because the inventory is so vast online, you have to order several weeks in advance, pay for shipping, and then pray that you aren't in the 15-20% who won't get their Christmas order by Christmas, and have no backup plan.

Plus there's no hustle-bustle and Christmas spirit when you're clicking around online and receiving a package at your doorstep.

The only advantage of online shopping is that the vast inventory makes it possible to find rare things that might not show up in stores. But if it's something that rare and specific, they can order it themselves. We were perfectly happy to receive store-bought gifts back before online shopping, none of which would be head-spinningly rare.

Indeed, I think aiming for gifts that are that rare and micro-tailored to the recipient are a not-so-subtle form of showing off on the part of the giver. It's competitive gift-giving. When you're trying to brag about how thoughtful you are, you're thinking primarily of yourself. It adulterates the other-minded spirit of gift-giving.

That ties back in to buying gifts super early -- bragging about how early you ordered them, to signal how much more thoughtful you are than everybody else. It's self-aggrandizing, not sacrificing.


  1. I think that one reason for Christmas coming so early is that large businesses want us to get our shopping done early so that the Christmas week rush isn't so hectic and fewer errors get made. But you're right, it does dilute the holiday when it finally comes.

  2. That's a good reason. Another reason is that it makes the holiday less emotional, and therefore less disruptive. During cocooning times, people are less able to tolerate strong emotions.


  3. I don't even want to think about Christmas before December. I waited a while before ordering things online and thought they might arrive shortly before Christmas, but I was surprised to find how quickly they arrived. I attempted to buy one thing in store but was told by a worker there it wasn't in stock, and may well not be available at any of their locations.

  4. "wasn't in stock" -- because now they only sell it online. The shopping patterns of the majority become 100% when everyone's chasing after the lowest common denominator.

    "During cocooning times, people are less able to tolerate strong emotions."

    Especially emotions that bond them to a community. They still go ape-shit for Halloween parties and New Year's Eve parties, but that seems more related to the status striving trend. Different emotions.

    When you look back at the mid-century, that's why it seems even more drained of emotion than today -- they had the positive emotions cut off because of cocooning, but also the negative ones because of the decline in status striving. It feels more bland than today or the Victorian era.

    Of course I'd prefer bland to a society that competes over who can design the most self-consciously ugly Christmas sweater.


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