Married man Chris Earley still has 10 shopping days until Christmas, but he’s already feeling doomed. Despite Internet access to nearly the entire world’s inventory, the Boston lawyer knows he won’t think of anything for his wife beyond a gift certificate to one of his same three go-to stores.
“I’m not creative,” he said.
“He will e-mail me a gift card to Lululemon and be like, ‘Merry Christmas,’ ” his wife, Rory, said in a separate conversation, accurately predicting her present.
As even Earley acknowledges, we’re living in a golden age of gift giving, when buying just the right holiday present — theoretically, at least — has never been easier.
There are endless gift guides — what to buy for the cashmere snob who wears only sweaters harvested from the under-chin of Himalayan mountain goats; the techie who won’t accept any electronic device he hasn’t personally selected; the vegan, lactose-intolerant, gluten-free foodie.
On top of that, Americans have so expanded the definition of what counts as a gift that a nonprofit is positioning an at-home saliva test as a present. Happy Holidays! Find out if your future child is at risk for a genetic condition!
Genius marketers have transformed utilitarian items and convenience store staples into gifts by giving them the subscription treatment. A box of tampons does not a present make. But monthly tampons in a festive box? Oh, you shouldn’t have! There’s bow of the month, socks of the month, jerky of the month.
Thanks to smartphones, giving has gotten so procrastinator-friendly that you can donate a flock of geese in your brother-in-law’s name as you’re pulling into his driveway on Christmas morning.
But despite it all, Americans waste more than $9.5 billion on unwanted gifts every year, according to research by finder.com, a personal finance comparison website. More than half of people don’t like at least one of the holiday presents they receive.
Part of the problem, experts say, is that we’re getting harder to please. Even as many people are struggling to provide basic necessities for their families, others have such an abundance of stuff that managing its sheer bulk actually elevates mothers’ stress hormones, according to UCLA-affiliated social scientists.
For a while, gift cards seemed like the answer. Considered less crass than cash, but still putting the decision in the recipient’s hand, they were, briefly, the ideal present.
But now even the cards have joined the pile of holiday detritus. There are so many unwanted cards that an entire industry has developed around selling or exchanging them online.
There’s cardpool.com, cardcash.com, giftcardbin.com, giftcardzen.com. Never mind that you don’t get a great return on your money — cardpool.com was offering $37.75 in cash for a $50 Macy’s card recently.
Considering the size of the gift-giving problem, there’s scant literature on who’s usually at fault in a failed situation, the off-base giver or the fussy recipient.
What is known is this: the most reviled person this time of year is the “hard-to-buy-for,” the person with no list, or hobbies, or needs. The overly picky.
Showing remarkable self-recognition, Sandra Mondesir, a hairdresser from Malden, put herself in this category.
“It’s difficult for people to give me gifts,” she said pleasantly as she shopped at T.J. Maxx on Newbury Street on a recent morning.
Don’t try to give her clothes or home goods, she said as she selected an aroma diffuser for a friend’s home — something no one would be allowed to pick out for her. “I have my own taste,” she said.
As for the bad gift givers, they often go wrong by focusing more on the shopping than the recipient, said consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow
Bargain hunters are so intent on scoring a deal they neglect to think of the person on the other end of that bargain, she said, and procrastinators are often so rattled by the thought of going to the store, or making a mistake, that they’re paralyzed.
No matter who’s in the wrong, human nature being what it is, a gift-giver can only beat himself up for so long before turning on the unsatisfied recipient.
So even though Earley, the gift-certificate-giving husband, started off criticizing his own lack of creativity, he was thrilled when he was asked if maybe his wife is the real problem — maybe she’s too particular.
“Yes, yes, yes!” he practically shouted, laughing with a mixture of joy and relief that he could finally speak the truth, or his version of it. “It’s pretty obvious to those who know her that nothing is going to be good enough.”Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.