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The Boston Globe

Opinion

TOM KEANE

Time to shop or, maybe, stop shopping

Matthew Daley for the Boston Globe

‘What would you like for Christmas?” comes the question from my youngest daughter.

“The love and affection of my children,” I respond.

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“Well, you’re not going to get that. Anything else?”

It’s a practiced bit of banter but, no, I think, there really isn’t. We’re in the season of Thankshannukwachristmas, that stretch of buying that kicked off last Thursday and ends with an explosion of unwrapping on Dec. 25 and its inevitable, terrible follow-up — the returns line. The US economy depends on this brief season. So do retailers. The National Retail Federation says that, depending on the nature of the business, 20 to 40 percent of annual sales occur in November and December.

But how long can it last? The federation expects 2013 holiday sales will ring up at over $602 billion (including online purchases), only marginally ahead of where they were last year. Such weak growth during a moderate economic rebound suggests something more is afoot. At some point, when do we run out of things we want? When do we run out of ideas for gifts to give?

The stuff we need we already have. We are hardly a society disposed to self-denial.

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No more jewelry, my wife instructs. They’re all very nice pieces she tells me — really, you do have good taste — but at some point, enough is enough. We only go out so much.

It’s like this with most everyone I know. The stuff we need we already have. We are hardly a society disposed to self-denial. If we’ve got the money (an important qualifier; 16 percent of Americans remain below the poverty line) and we think we want it, we buy it. Who waits around waiting to be gifted an item they need?

Related to that is this emerging problem: Technology has made obsolete so many of the things we used buy as presents. Board games can be wonderful gifts, made for hours of fun. But now they’re just an app on a smartphone. Books? They’re digital as well. The merger of everything into one means that where once we might consider a range of possibilities for our largesse — a portable TV, a radio, a phone, a GPS, a calculator, CDs, videos, even a flashlight! — they are all now just apps on smartphones or tablets (and apps that often can be downloaded for free if you’re willing to tolerate the ads).

Thus we have the rise of the gift card, a phenomenon of such absurdity that, like the travails of Miley Cyrus, I can’t wrap my head around it. Having concluded that we simply have no idea what someone else would like or need, we toss the responsibility back to the receiver. Here you are: a gift card to Target for $50. Buy your own damn present.

It’s obvious why retailers like them. The cards are cash up front and draw consumers into stores where they’ll often spend even more. Moreover, about $2 billion of all gift cards given each year are never used — becoming, in effect, free money to a store owner. But from a consumer’s point of view, why not give cash instead? You can use it not only at Target but also Walmart, a restaurant or anywhere. Yet cash, apparently, is gauche. The gift card, mysteriously, is not.

I don’t mean to sound like Scrooge here. When it comes to children, toys can be a joy all around. It’s fun to watch the wide eyes that accompany the opening of each year’s must-haves (2013’s include the Ugglys, Crazy Carts, and Big Hugs Elmo), the successful acquisition of which represents a small parental triumph. But among adults?

Some consumer studies suggest that gift-giving really is losing its allure. The notion of consumption for consumption’s sake seems at odds in a world where resources are scarce, environmental worries are mounting, and there are such gulfs between those who have and those who have not. An alternative, perhaps, is to contribute to a charity or through an organization such as Heifer International. Heifer’s notion is that rather than give someone you know a present they don’t want, give in the name of that person to a stranger who actually needs it (an irrigation pump, for instance, for $150). It’s an interesting idea: gift-giving that actually is in keeping with the spirit of the season.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com

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