Gift-Giving As a Metaphor For Understanding New Products That Delight

Jeffrey F. Durgee, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Trina Sego, Rensselaer at Hartford
ABSTRACT - This paper explores skills and knowledge that providers use to produce offerings (products and services) which delight consumers. Gift-giving within intimate relationships is used as a metaphor to understand producer-consumer relationships. Ten couples were interviewed about their gift-giving and gift-receiving experiences. Results suggest that givers find novel combinations of valued gift attributes and select gifts that reflect life orientations of receivers. Successful givers also know how to look for gifts that reflect valued products meanings to receivers. Implications for understanding delightful new product designs are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Jeffrey F. Durgee and Trina Sego (2001) ,"Gift-Giving As a Metaphor For Understanding New Products That Delight", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 64-69.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 64-69

GIFT-GIVING AS A METAPHOR FOR UNDERSTANDING NEW PRODUCTS THAT DELIGHT

Jeffrey F. Durgee, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Trina Sego, Rensselaer at Hartford

ABSTRACT -

This paper explores skills and knowledge that providers use to produce offerings (products and services) which delight consumers. Gift-giving within intimate relationships is used as a metaphor to understand producer-consumer relationships. Ten couples were interviewed about their gift-giving and gift-receiving experiences. Results suggest that givers find novel combinations of valued gift attributes and select gifts that reflect life orientations of receivers. Successful givers also know how to look for gifts that reflect valued products meanings to receivers. Implications for understanding delightful new product designs are discussed.

INTRODUCTION

Academic researchers (Kumar and Olshavsky 1997; Oliver, Rust and Varki 1997; Williams and Anderson 1999) and marketers of new products and services (Coyne 1989) are looking at the concept of "delight." The researchers' goal is to understand consumer delight, while the marketers' goal is to introduce new products that go beyond basic need satisfaction. All are interested in new products that generate a special level of excitement such as the sport utility vehicle and the laptop computer.

There is not a lot of agreement, however, about what "delight" means. A recent definition by Oliver, Rust and Varki (1997) suggests that delight consists of three components: positive affect, arousal, and surprise. A standard definition from expectancy-confirmation theory suggests that delight occurs whenever perceived deliverables exceed expectations (Kumar and Olshavsky 1997). The latter definition is useful for much new product research and development, but it restricts innovation to simply moving farther and farther along known dimensions. Cars become more powerful, houses get bigger, and food portions at restaurants become more massive.

To the extent that models of satisfaction are features-based, market research efforts aimed at finding opportunities to delight consumers will be aimed at identifying key features. However, as Fournier and Mick (1999) point out, satisfaction is highly complex. Models of satisfaction-and delight-should address different ways that satisfaction might be achieved. Furthermore, such models should address how products relate to daily life and to associated meanings and feelings.

Marketers might learn how to identify opportunities for breakthrough products by exploring the exchange of delightful gifts. A delightful gift is defined here as a gift that both pleases and surprises the recipient. Whether it is called hitting a hot button or striking a responsive chord, a delightful gift, like a great new product, involves an intimate understanding of the recipient and creative anticipation of the intense reaction that a gift might generate.

In this paper, we describe results of an exploratory study in which men and women in ten couples are asked about gifts that they found delightful. By interviewing people in intimate relationships, we address provider or giver models of satisfaction which reflect the complexity of the satisfaction response as described by Fournier and Mick (1999). People in intimate relationships know each others' needs not only in terms of desired product features (e.g., "she likes fast cars"), but also in terms of the others' personalities and daily life situations (e.g., "she likes to be 'hot stuff,' always driving the 'hottest' car").

The following section summarizes research questions and examines parallels between new product development and gift-giving. Subsequent sections review the results from an exploratory study of gift-giving between men and women in ten couples and provide implications for identifying needs for new products that delight.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS

The central question driving this research is how do providers know how to surprise and please receivers? What tacit skills and knowledge of receivers do they use? To suggest some answers, we considered delightful gift-giving in intimate relationships, and explored the following questions:

1 . What types of gifts generate delight? What do delightful gifts have in common?

2. What does the delight experience consist of in receiving special gifts? What role do delightful gifts play in peoples' lives?

3. What happens when a giver selects the perfect gift? Why are some people particularly adept at understanding overt and latent needs of other people, and using this understanding to select gifts that delight these people? What is the nature of their understanding of these people? How much creativity is involved? Can that creativity be understood?

Simply put, how does one person understand another so well that he or she can select a gift that delights that person? And what are the implications of gift-giving in intimate relationships for new product development?

GIFT-GIVING AND NEW PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT

Given the size of the gift industry, the lack of popular literature on gift-giving is surprising. Baldridge (1978) notes the importance of considering receiver needs and hobbies, and Nelson (1987) recommends positive gifts such as good wine for people one wants to welcome into an extended family, and neutral gifts such as items from art museums to people one does not know very well. An owner of a large gift shop (Hoffman 2000) advises gift shoppers to make the gifts as personal as possible, and to add an element of surprise. Hoffman presented an example of a man who gave his wife a music box that played music from her favorite musical, and put inside the box two tickets to the musical. She also recommends gifts that commemorate shared histories and tap special memories (e.g., anniversary gifts) and items that might become family heirlooms.

Otnes, Lowrey and Kim (1993) found that gift-hunters use a number of different strategies: 1) "sleuthing" or testing reactions to possible gift ideas; 2) "treasure hunting" in unusual places (e.g., antique shops) for things that would have special meanings to receivers; 3) "latching on" or sticking to "whatever gift made them happy last year;" and 4) "compensating" or giving an item that replaces something the receiver recently lost. Ruth, Otnes and Brunel (1999) note the importance of empathy in the giver's ability to -see inside the recipient and know just what he or she needs the most" (p 390). Fischer and Arnold (1990) argue that this quality is found more often in women than in men "because [women] have greater familiarity with the tastes, wants and needs of recipients" (p.336).

Selecting successful gifts, like developing successful new products, appears to involve two steps: 1) a need or opportunity in the target is identified, and 2) the giver comes up with a creative solution to fill that need. Both steps involve insight and creativity. For example, a male respondent in this study learned that his new girlfriend was very interested in Gothic movies, Edgar Allen Poe stories, and arts of the Renaissance. He could have given her a book or a videotape on any of these subjects, but instead he gave her a set of Renaissance swords, which surprised and pleased her. The swords were a creative expression of Gothic themes and Renaissance art.

Successful gift-givers, like successful product designers, work hard to produce the right offering. In Never Leave Well Enough Alone (1951), designer Raymond Loewy tells other designers to constantly look out for ways to improve their designs. Similarly, respondents in this study often took extra steps to find the perfect gift. For example, it was not enough that a woman respondent gave her fiance-who loved Mark Twain-an old set of Mark Twain books; she gave him a set of autographed Mark Twain books.

Marketers today are pushed to develop close "relationships with their buyers" and to "know them in depth." Could they know their buyers as well as spouses know each other? Could they please them as well as spouses please each other? General Electric (GE) tries to communicate positive concern and intentions toward consumers through advertising claiming that GE brings "good things to life." But do such companies really exercise such a level of concern?

Pollay (1987) refers to the concept of the "Acme Delivery" in which a very thoughtful gift or gesture comes suddenly out of nowhere and touches people deeply. Could manufacturers learn how to make Acme Deliveries'? Could they at least get closer to the Acme philosophy? In their discussion of provider-consumer relationships in the context of services marketing, Price and Arnould (1999) describe how popular hairstylists consider not only features such as head shape when creating a new hairstyle, but also clients' personalities, anxieties and life events.

AN EXPLORATORY STUDY OF GIFT-GIVING

To explore gift-giving in close relationships, in-depth interviews were conducted with a convenience sample of ten couples. Six couples had been married for 20 years or more, and two couples had been married for ten years. One couple was engaged, and one was still dating although the relationship was very close. Each respondent was interviewed individually.

The focus of this research is on how these individuals understand each other and use this understanding to identify creative gifts that will please and surprise. Most gift research has focused on how gift-giving defines or redefines giver-receiver relationships (e.g., Fischer and Arnold 1990); however, we do not examine the relationships per se, but rather the tacit and creative skills givers might be using to delight receivers.

During the interview, each respondent was asked to think of and describe gifts that he/she had given in the last ten years to one's spouse (or fiance or partner) that both pleased and surprised the receiver. Respondents were also asked to think of gifts that they had received from their partners that caused them to feel pleasure and surprise.

All gifts mentioned are considered in this study. Gifts were classified as "hit" gifts (to borrow a term from the game Battleship) if they were mentioned by givers and receivers; that is, hit gifts were ones that the giver thought the receiver would feel was a special gift, and then the receiver in fact named that gift as a special gift from the giver.

Other gifts were classified as: 1) "misses"-gifts which givers hoped would please and surprise but which did not, and 2) "accidental hits,"-gifts which recipients felt were pleasing and surprising yet were not mentioned by givers. (On the last note, this often happens in new product marketing. A new product is a big success but no one knows why!) Respondents were asked how they selected gifts and what they expected to receive. They also discussed their spouses (or partners), the duration of the relationships, shared lifestyles, and shared interests.

Previous research on gift-giving has been criticized for focusing mainly on gift-givers rather than receivers (Otnes, Lowrey and Kim 1993) and few studies focus on both. Given recent emphasis on the creation and maintenance of marketing relationships (e.g., Fournier 1998) as well as more traditional research on buyer-seller dyads in industrial marketing (Schurr and Ozanne 1985), it is surprising that so few studies consider gift-giving from the perspectives of the giver and of the receiver. Because we interviewed both givers and receivers, our approach offers a more balanced view of giver-receiver understandings and interactions.

RESULTS

Most of the married couples said they do not give surprise gifts, and two older males said they did not even like to receive gifts. At holidays and special occasions, respondents reported that they simply tell each other what they would like or give each other lists. With dual careers and pressures from home, many are too busy to invest much time in shopping for gifts. One male said he "doesn't like surprises." Also, in many cases of high pleasure and high surprise, the surprise was because the gift was expensive and the receiver "never thought he would spend that much money." Some gifts were felt to be surprises merely because they were received outside of the normal gift-giving occasions (holidays, etc.).

We found a number of successful gift-givers, people whose gifts satisfied the high-pleasure, high-surprise criteria. Respondents generally had an easy time remembering gifts they gave and those they received, and tended to focus on gifts given and received in the last three years. All gifts are listed in Table 1.

The Gifts

Respondents named 49 gifts. Approximately half were hits, 20 percent were accidental hits, and the remainder were misses. In spite of pressures from marketers to give more services (e.g., gift of a day at a health spa, Broadway show tickets), people tend to think of products (rings, books) rather than services when they think of special gifts (Table 1).

Not surprisingly, common among the hit gifts were indulgent, luxury items: limousine rides, bracelets, massages. Also among the hits mentioned are commemorative gifts such as anniversary jewelry and special birthday dinners. These gifts all represent delightful departures from daily life and everyday consumption experiences. Givers present such items as special treats to receivers-and receivers appreciate them as such. If designers of everyday functional products wanted to incorporate more "delight" attributes into their products, perhaps they should consider indulgent products.

The "accidental hits"-gifts which delighted even though givers did not expect them to delight-tended to include everyday functional items: a videocassette recorder, a color printer, a jacket, and tools. In some cases, it was possible to re-interview givers and ask them about these gifts. Givers said things like,"Oh, yes, I forgot about that..." and "Oh yeah, I figured he could use that." In many of these cases, it appeared that givers simply got lucky. They hit a nerve or gave something that was needed by the receiver at that moment (e.g., a color printer needed to print a dissertation, or a videocassette recorder for a new apartment). One woman said, "I was really pregnant and I was feeling terrible ... My husband gave me a single rose in a vase which was the perfect thing to give me at that time."

TABLE 1

GIFTS GIVEN BY MALES TO FEMALES, AND BY FEMALES TO MALES

The most misses were found in two couples, one a commuter marriage, the other experiencing the usual crush of mid-stage marriages: two careers, children, business trips, etc. It is simply harder for these couples to devote the time and attention to finding special gifts. In contrast, just like successful marketers who are very close to their customers, newlyweds, dating couples and spouses who are very close seem to come up with the most hits and accidental hits. Moreover, people in these couples often put themselves-symbolically or literally-in the gifts (Belk and Coon 1993). The sexy nightie presented to male 9 was worn by the woman giver. An ankle bracelet from India was given by an Indian male early in couple 3's relationship. The bracelet very likely represented the giver's immigrant identity (Mehta and Belk 1991) and the significance of his ethnicity in a relationship with a nonIndian woman.

Many of the gifts-including hits as well as accidental hits-are unique, even obscure items. While there are many books among the gifts, receivers note special titles of the most liked gifts: "Susan Cooper set" or "autographed Mark Twain set." Other unique items include a Department 56 Christmas Village Christmas set, a set of white kitchen baskets, an Egyptian necklace, a five-stone Mother's Day ring (one star for each child), a single rose in a vase, a curio cabinet, a Baccarat vase, and the aforementioned Indian ankle bracelet.

The uniqueness of these items highlights their personalness. By being unique, they have a "j ust for you" quality for the receivers. Receivers are able to describe the uniqueness in detail: For example, woman 4 reported that "the watch had interwoven gold and white gold threads... " Receivers feel touched that givers know them so well that they could come up with gifts which were so personal and unique (Belk 1996).

Gifts from men to women include flowers, rings, and expensive watches. Some of the gifts from women to men seem more utilitarian: tools, binoculars, and clothes. Perhaps because of this, the women were more likely to be recipients of hit gifts. Many of the wives and girlfriends, however, seemed very surprised to receive these gifts because the husbands seldom gave them. Fischer and Arnold (1990) found in their research that women are more successful gift-givers than men, where success is defined in terms of percentage of gifts not returned to the store. Our research would suggest, however, that men are better at pleasing and surprising women. However, this finding might be attributable to the poorer memories for gifts among men as well as the surprises women feel when they receive gifts.

In sum, our results support findings of earlier work by Belk (1996), and Rucker, Freitas and Kangas (1996). In these papers, the perfect gift was described as representing the following criteria: 1) there is sacrifice on the part of the giver; 2) the giver's sole wish is to please the receiver; 3) the gift is a luxury; 4) the gift is something uniquely appropriate to the receiver; 5) the receiver is surprised by the gift; and 6) the receiver is pleased by gift.

Receiver Reactions

Particularly with the hits in Table 1 (i.e., gifts intended to please and surprise that were actually experienced as such), the response by recipients is one of joy and, in many cases, disbelief. Receivers say the gifts seem "unreal" and "impossible." The man who received the autographed Mark Twain books called this "the mother of all gifts." The woman who received the shearling coat said she could hardly believe that one could ever be found it in her size, and the man who received the Scarlet Pimpernell tickets for the Broadway show said he could not believe his wife could get the tickets. To repeat a point made earlier, receivers feel that these gifts are unique or "just for me." They feel that someone knows them very well, and selected a gift for them which is "perfect."

Women receivers seemed more surprised and appreciative than men with their gifts. Many of them gave detailed, excited descriptions of the gifts. Men seemed to take longer to think of special gifts they had received, and had more trouble explaining why they were special. Are women generally easier to "delight?" To repeat an issue raised earlier, how much of the excitement is due to the gift and how much to the relationship?

How Givers Identify Special Gifts

Several strategies givers use to understand receivers have been noted in the literature:

Receiver interests

As indicated earlier, the most basic knowledge is of receiver hobbies and interests. An old gift-giving strategy is simply to find something that relates to a hobby. Woman 8 collected miniatures, so her husband surprised her with a nice cabinet for them. With collections, there are always more objects to acquire.

Bring a feeling of closure

Wherever interests can be represented as sets of items, successful givers often use this knowledge to find novel items that can bring psychological closure to that set. The idea of adding to receiver collections has already been noted. Receivers are excited when they feel, "that is the last thing I needed! Where did you find it?" Marketers know that they can market items to the extent that they can claim, "This is the last item you need for your kitchen (or bath, or tool box, or cosmetics drawer ... )" To the extent that there are product constellations or socially agreed-upon sets of items needed for certain social roles or identities (e.g., attorneys, doctors; Solomon and Assael 1987), givers can use this knowledge to find gifts which complete these sets. Man 10 knew that his wife had many of the amenities appropriate to an upper-middle class woman, except pearls, so he gave her a strand of pearls.

Receiver hints

Another tactic successful givers use is to be very attentive to receiver foreshadowing. Givers say they shop with receivers and watch their eyes as they examine items on store shelves. Receivers might even be unaware of what is happening, but givers notice moments when receivers give a little more attention to one thing over another, and signal special interests in particular items (Sherry 1983).

At the same time, the results of this study suggest several additional ways givers anticipate needs of receivers and how to delight them:

Hypothetico-deductive models

Several givers noted using simple deductive models. The man who bought his wife the white kitchen baskets (couple 10) reasoned: a) she likes to organize things; b) she recently redecorated the kitchen in black, white and green; and c) she has a closet she wants to use to store cans and bottles; therefore, d) she would like white steel mesh baskets that fit into cabinet shelves. This strategy is intriguing insofar as it can incorporate creativity and generate surprise. If the elements a, b, and c are individually liked by the receiver, but are seldom associated together, a gift which incorporates all of them could bring surprise and pleasure.

Surprise and pleasure in the reaction of the receiver of the Mark Twain books may be because the receiver would like to have a) Mark Twain's autograph; as well as b) some nice Mark Twain books. So the combination, a set of autographed Mark Twain books, was to him unbelievable. Hypothetico-deductive models might extend to product design as well. For a long time, consumers valued the power of big, clunky desktop computers, but also the lightness and portability of a small portable typewrite r-hence, the delight associated with new, powerful laptops.

Core meaning

Many gifts were successful because the giver, consciously or unconsciously, understands the core meaning of a product category to the receiver, and used this knowledge to identify a purest expression of that meaning in a potential gift. Anniversary dinners could potentially represent a wide variety of possible meanings: commemoration of a marriage, return to a restaurant where a couple had their first date, sharing a special type of food. In the cases of successful dinner gifts, however, what made them successful was the special thrill or extraordinariness of the evening. This being the case, what might maximize that meaning is a ride in a limousine (couple 9).

The reaction to these gifts might be described as a shock of recognition. Receivers might be expecting an item in a given category, but are shocked when they see a personally-relevant exemplar from that category which is extreme in terms of some quality they highly value. A Mother's Day ring is a nice ring, but is special because it has five stones, each representing a child in the "yours, mine and ours" marriage (couple 7). A woman who wants to learn more about photography might expect a camera from her boyfriend, but is surprised to see that his Christmas gift to her represents the highest level of photographic knowledge and expertise: an SLR camera (couple 5).

Receiver Orientation to World

The most interesting approaches, however, involve giver insights about how the receivers orient themselves to the world, or what Fournier (1998) would refer to as life context. For example, as indicated above, woman 10 loves to organize things. She is an accountant, has a lot of energy, and loves to plan and arrange t hings. Any product that facilitates these tasks will be very satisfying for her. She likes calendars and telephone answering machines. The white steel baskets for organizing her kitchen cabinets were a perfect gift.

A second woman sees the world mainly in terms of her children. She has five children and constantly monitors their every move. A Mother's Day ring with five stones was the perfect gift for her (couple 7). A third woman, who received the Renaissance swords, sees the world as a source of romance and adventure (couple 1). In each case, the gift becomes an extension of the receiver's values (Belk 1988).

A few consumer products companies understand this strategy and use it to design products. General Motors (GM) knows that their upscale buyers value being higher than or "above" the world. In spite of all the negatives associated with sport utility vehicles (SUVs), consumers buy them because they like the elevated driving position. In fact, designers at the GM Design Center use the metaphor of riding a horse with an English saddle to capture the orientation of drivers of SUVs to the world around them. SUV drivers like the feeling of being above the world as well as the creaking leather seats and slow, deliberate movements of these vehicles (Lystad 2000).

SUMMARY AND DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH

This research examined three types of gifts which are exchanged between couples: a) hits. gifts which the givers thought would please and surprise receivers and which receivers men-tioned as having their intended effect; 2) accidental which receivers found pleasing and surprising, but givers did not hits, gifts mention; and 3) misses, gifts which givers thought would please and surprise, but which receivers did not mention. The goal of the research was to explore how successful givers understand receiv-ers, and use this understanding to infer what makes delightful new products so successful.

Findings from the research as well as recent literature indicate that givers use a number of strategies to identify high-delight gift opportunities. Givers:

1 . Consider current receiver hobbies and interests;

2. "Sleuth out" receiver hints and reactions to possible gift ideas;

3. "Compensate" or give receivers something they recently lost;

4. Give receivers something that symbolizes the self or the relationship (e.g., is hand-made, reflects shared interests);

5. Give luxury and unique gifts to emphasize specialness and personalness;

6. Give things that bring closure, for example, an item that completes a collection or project;

7. Identify previously uncombined receiver wants or values, andfind agiftwhich combines these wants in a uniqueway;

8. Identify a core receiver want or value, and find a gift which is a pure expression of that want or value; or

9. Find a gift that reflects how the receiver orients himself or herself to the world in general.

All of these strategies are applicable to new product development as well as to gift-giving.

Like most research, the present study suffers from limitations. First, the sample for this exploratory study is small, as is the number of gifts. Second, respondents may have said that they liked some gifts not because of the gifts themselves but because they came from loved ones. One's attitude toward a gift is likely to be bound up with affect associated with a relationship to the gift giver. This issue has been noted in many studies of gift-giving (e.g., Ruth, Otnes and Brunel 1999; Belk and Coon 1993), and represents a limitations of the analogy between gift-giving in intimate relationships and designing new products.

A gift might also be cherished because the giver and receiver simply like the same things (Belk 1976). In the interviews conducted here, successful givers sometimes said things like "I give him things that I like because we both like the same things." This might suggest that one way to assess needs and wants of target segments in marketing might be to interview people in intimate relationships with target consumers

Future research might consider gift-giving strategies from parents to children, since parents presumably follow their children and their wants very carefully. Future research might also involve interviews with superstar gift-givers, individuals who are reputed among friends and colleagues to have special powers of intuition and are able to identify the most exciting gift opportunities. Sociometric methods might be used to identify such gift-givers.

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