Skip to main content

The Science of Shopping: Buy Gifts One at a Time

holiday safety tips
(Image credit: Andy Dean Photography | shutterstock)

Want to buy everyone on your list the best possible gift this Christmas? Don't go shopping for all of them at the same time.

A new study suggests that when people buy gifts for multiple recipients at once, they might let concerns over getting something unique for everyone overshadow what each person would really like best.

"Having multiple recipients in mind not only means that more gifts are needed, but it may change what shoppers focus on when making gift selections," wrote Mary Steffel of the University of Cincinnati and Robyn A. LeBoeuf of the University of Florida in the new paper published online Nov. 21 in the Journal of Consumer Research. [11 Cool Christmas Gifts for Geeks]

Consumer research studies have shown that people shop differently in groups than they do alone, and that comparing their purchases with what other people buy also changes behavior. Steffel and LeBoeuf were interested in whether just thinking of multiple gift recipients could skew how people shop.

Happy-ish birthday

They conducted a series of six studies to find out. In the first, they asked 67 University of Florida students to pick out a birthday card from four choices for an imaginary friend named Rob or Pete. Rob was pictured laughing, suggesting he had a better sense of humor than Pete.

The researchers pre-tested a selection of cards to determine the funniest, which read "Happiness is like peeing in your pants. Everyone can see it, but only you can feel its warmth. It's your birthday. Let your happiness show." The other cards had more boring inscriptions like, "Happy Birthday. You're one of a kind."

The researchers found that when shopping for either Rob or Pete alone, participants were most likely to give either friend the funniest card. But when asked to shop for both Rob and Pete, they chose to give Rob the funniest card and Pete one of the less-appealing ones. They made this decision even after being told that Rob and Pete did not know each other, lived in different cities, and were unlikely to compare cards. The participants also admitted that they knew Rob would like the second-best card less than the favorite.

A second study of 227 University of Cincinnati students found that the pattern of giving a second-best gift instead of two identically favored gifts held in the real world. The students were asked to pick gift cards as presents for university and out-of-town friends. When buying for one friend at their school, 72 percent of the students picked the agreed-upon best card, an Amazon gift card. But when buying for two, only 55 percent gave their university friend the same, well-liked card — though 81 percent picked that card for their out-of-town friend. [7 Marketing Tricks Retailers Use to Make You Shop]

Giving second-best

The studies suggested that people do, in fact, value uniqueness over giving the best gift, even when two people will never know they received the same thing. To find out why, the researchers investigated several possibilities. One possible cause, they reasoned, could be that when people think of two or more friends at once, they focus on their friends' differences, rather than similarities. Thus, if Sarah likes animated movies and Jane likes animated movies but also enjoys sci-fi, a gift-giver would be more likely to focus on Jane's sci-fi interest than her love of animation.

But when asked to consider gifts for a theoretical pair of friends with these overlapping interests, participants acknowledged Jane's primary love of cartoons, even while saying they'd buy her a sci-fi DVD, the researchers found.

So they turned to another possibility: Perhaps gift-givers were trying to be more thoughtful, even as they paradoxically made worse gift choices. Buying two people the same gift may feel impersonal, the researchers wrote.

To test the idea, the researchers conducted gift-giving experiments in which they encouraged participants to be either particularly thoughtful or to pick casually without much worry. Sure enough, people who were trying to be thoughtful were more likely to give one friend in a pair a second-best gift rather than getting both the same thing that they'd like best.

Focusing on giving

Fortunately, there may be a way to make better choices, even if you have to cram all of your shopping into one trip to the mall. In a final study, conducted on a sample of adults recruited online, the researchers asked participants to imagine buying DVDs for two cousins with overlapping tastes, a similar set-up to the previous experiments. This time, though, some participants were specifically asked beforehand to imagine what the cousins would buy for themselves.

The participants prompted to think of gift-giving in terms of the recipient worked — givers in that condition bought their cousins the favored gift 76 percent of the time, even though that meant buying the same DVD for both. When the participants didn't think of the recipients' preferences, they bought the favored gift for both cousins only 54 percent of the time.

"Focusing givers' attention on recipient liking [of a gift] improved gift selections," the researchers wrote.

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science. She covers the world of human and animal behavior, as well as paleontology and other science topics. Stephanie has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has ducked under a glacier in Switzerland and poked hot lava with a stick in Hawaii. Stephanie hails from East Tennessee, the global center for salamander diversity. Follow Stephanie on Google+.