Gift-Giving: a Review and an Interactive Paradigm

Sharon K. Banks, (student), University of Oregon
ABSTRACT - This paper consolidates past theories and findings on gift-giving with the limited contemporary work done on gift-giving, primarily within the marketing discipline. Further, an interactive gift-giving model, including a view of both the giver and receiver, is presented, within which future research directions are suggested.
[ to cite ]:
Sharon K. Banks (1979) ,"Gift-Giving: a Review and an Interactive Paradigm", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 319-324.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 319-324


Sharon K. Banks (student), University of Oregon


This paper consolidates past theories and findings on gift-giving with the limited contemporary work done on gift-giving, primarily within the marketing discipline. Further, an interactive gift-giving model, including a view of both the giver and receiver, is presented, within which future research directions are suggested.


It has been conservatively estimated that gifts account for 10% of all retail sales in North America (Belshaw, 1965). Further, many retailers estimate that 30 to 50% of their total volume (and even higher percentages of their total profits) occur in two months of the year, November and December. These astounding figures are due primarily to heavy gift-buying during the holidays. To further indicate the extent of gift-giving, in a 1973 study of 219 gift-giving instances by 73 Philadelphia area residents, Belk (1977) found an average of 26-27 gifts were purchased during the previous year per adult with a total average annual expenditure of $280.43.

It has been suggested that marketers should aim at encouraging greater gift-giving and developing more gift-giving opportunities (Lowes, et. al., 1971). This is particularly relevant due to the reciprocal nature of gifts, i.e., almost every sale generated by primary promotional activity leads to two sales actually being made. Despite all the above compelling reasons to study gift-giving in depth, marketers have steadfastly ignored the subject almost entirely. Only a few researchers in marketing have shown any interest in the topic.

Most of the early work done on gift-giving arises from studies by anthropologists or sociologists who have examined gift-giving within primitive societies (Mauss, 1954, and Malinowski, 1932). The concepts involved in these early studies were then applied to social exchange theory among sociologists such as Levi-Strauss (1965), Homans (1950,1965), and Blau (1965) and in the study of gratitude by psychologists such as Jones (1964).

In the sixties the study of gift-giving branched out widely. Schwartz (1967) studied the social psychology principles involved in gift-giving. Titmuss (1971) looked at the gift of giving blood. Others, such as Leeds (1963) and Krebs (1970) approached gift-giving from the standpoint of altruism.

There is a need to consolidate past theories and findings on gift-giving with the contemporary work done on gift-giving. This paper attempts this task while also developing an interactive gift-giving model and suggesting future research directions for the field.


A useful approach for reviewing the literature on gift-giving is to focus on the behavioral concepts which have been studied in conjunction with gift-giving. The major concepts that have been linked with gift-giving include reciprocity, interaction, and identity formation.

Gift-giving and Reciprocity

One way to view gift-giving is according to the reciprocity commitments involved with the gifts. Lowes, et. al. (1971) has set up such a classification scheme. It can be expressed as follows:

    Pure Gift o---------------------------------------------------o Total Reciprocation

                      Shades of partially or conditionally returned gifts

A pure gift would be an altruistic act where nothing is given or expected in return. Pure gifts were not often observed by researchers of primitive societies. Mauss (1954), and others found that gifts were conceived as socially meaningful acts.

Although not stressed by the early writers on gift-giving, altruism is a relevant motive. It would appear that this motive often arises when the receiver is capable of appreciating the gesture but is incapable of returning the gift or favor, in particular, the very old, the very young, the very sick and the very poor. Leeds (1963) defines this process as the "norm of giving" in contrast to Gouldner's (1960) "norm of reciprocity."

On the other end of the continuum is total reciprocity, which involves the social obligations to give, to accept, and especially to repay (or reciprocate). Moral enforcement of these obligations is a concept addressed by most of the early authors on gift-giving, such as Mauss (1954) Simmel (1950), Levi-Strauss (1965), Homans (1965), Schwartz (1967), and Titmuss (1971). Gouldner (1960) indicates that reciprocity is expected in the form of a return gift or in feelings of gratitude or deference. Because of the wide range of repayments possible, Gouldner's reciprocity can be translated into the reciprocity continuum earlier depicted with gratitude classified as less reciprocation than deference and deference as less reciprocation than a return gift.

However, reciprocation may be mediated by other variables, such as the ability of the individual to return a gift and the differential position of the individual in society. A good example of this is Muir and Weinstein's (1962) study on the giving of favors and the social debt incurred by different social classes by asking samples of low class and middle class members questions about favors. Middle class statements indicated that social obligation required them to make certain repayments and to form expectations for others to repay their obligations or face growing hostility, i.e., the norm of reciprocity. On the other hand, lower class individuals tended to feel more "grateful" than "obligated," i.e., one gives when one is able, expecting others to do the same.

Gift-Giving and Interaction

Mauss (1954) looked at gift-giving within primitive societies and its prevalence caused Homans to use Mauss' (1954) work as a basis for his social exchange theory. Mauss looked at exchange of gifts in primitive societies and called this process "a total social fact" including social, religious, economic, utilitarian sentimental, legal and moral significance. Blau (1965) also began his theoretical treatise on the exchange of social rewards based on gifts in the form of deeds, which are expenditures of time and effort, being exchanged.

Belk (1977a) characterizes gift-giving as a process of symbolic communication with the gift being both the message and the channel. There are opportunities for both encoding errors (choosing proper gift) and decoding errors (understanding the gift's meaning). An additional complication is the possibly unreliable feedback due to simulated approval.

It has been suggested that those to whom an individual gives gifts are in some way different from those to whom no gift is given (Schwartz, 1967). Thus, the gift exchange process tends to dramatize and clarify group and interactive boundaries.

Further, gifts help to define an individual's status or status change in society, e.g., graduation gifts and Father's Day presents. Gifts also act as symbols of social support in the commonly recognized rites of passage, such as engagements, baby showers, religious confirmations and weddings. (Belk 1977a)

Gift-Giving and Identity Formation

Identity formation, which is synonymous with the development of self-concept, can be viewed from two perspectives: (1) the socialization of children and (2) the generation and development of identity in adults.

Parents, other family members and friends influence the socialization of a child with gifts. These gifts affect the child's developmental processes, interests, knowledge acquisition, view of the world and basic values. Gift influences are particularly crucial for pre-school children because the child contributes little or no input into the gift decisions.

The process of socialization includes the learning of sex-role expectations. It is reasonable to presume that some sex-role stereotyping occurs simply because the "correct" sex-role gift is given. Belk (1977b) examined the possession and perception of various sex-role related toys by a small sample of 22 preschool children

(4 and 5 year olds) and their parents. He arrived at a number of interesting conclusions, indicating the significance of gifts in the socialization of children: (1) As expected, children own more same sex toys than cross-sex toys. (2) However, the above pattern is weaker for toys given by the child's parents. (3) Toy ownership plays a significant role in the development of sex-role preference.

Caron and Ward (1975) conducted a study in Canada on the interaction of children and parents involving gift decisions and reached the following conclusions: (1) Almost 1/2 of the Christmas gifts purchased by parents are not explicitly requested by the children. (2) The types of gifts requested varied by social class. (3) Parents mediate gift requests, i.e., they selectively yield to purchase requests.

The socialization process is simply the first step in a long progression of the gift as a generator of identity. Gifts are one of the ways in which the pictures that others have of us in their minds are transmitted (Schwartz, 1967). Thus, the giver expresses his perception of the recipient's self-concept. But, further, gifts also communicate something about the giver. That is, individuals confirm who they are by what they give.


Although there has not been extensive published research on gift-giving within a marketing context, there have been several studies which have produced some interesting results. These studies can be categorized under three main topic areas: (1) Psychological interrelationships; (2) Risk reduction and information sources used; (3) Gift context studies in which the dimensions of gift-giving are investigated.

Psychological Interrelationships in Gift-Giving

Belk (1976), utilizing Heider's balance theory principles, investigated to what extent giver traits and preferences versus giver perceptions of recipient traits and preferences determined the gift selection. The di-. graph is based on positive/negative relationships between the giver's self-image, giver's liking of recipient, giver's evaluation of gift and giver's perception of recipient's affect toward the gift. Different combinations, such as all the above positively related, will lead to a state of balance (or imbalance).

Belk measured the above concepts on a sample of gift-givers and ascertained that there were a significant number of balanced configurations but that balance does not explain the entire concept. Where imbalance occurred, satisfaction with the giver's choice was much lower. Furthermore, imbalanced situations were more likely to occur when the giver and recipient had not established a prior history of reciprocal giving and when the recipient was not a close member of the giver's family.

Through the use of canonical analysis, Belk (1977a) ascertained that the ideal self-concept of the giver was more highly correlated with the choice of the gift than was the giver's self-concept and perceptions of the recipient, although these latter two were also found to be significant factors.

Perceived Risk and Information Search in Gift-giving

Hart (1974) found that subjects were more conservative when making decisions for their spouses than when making the same decisions for themselves. Subjects rated the overall perceived risk severity as much greater when deciding for their spouses than for themselves.

In studying the purchase of a kitchen knife for home use versus as a gift, Vincent and Zikmund (1975) found that social risk was perceived as much greater when an item was purchased as a gift versus when it was purchased for home use.

However, the opposite results were obtained with financial risk, i.e., it being significantly higher for home use than as a gift purchase. Purchasing a more expensive model for a wedding gift than for personal use could be interpreted as a risk reduction method for handling perceived social risk. Financial risk would thus not be considered as important to the purchaser. Likewise, Shapiro (1970) found that "when buying a gift, respondents viewed the quality of the product as more important and the price as less important than when buying a product for herself."

In a simulated shopping trip, Weigl (1975) used the same risk measures as Vincent and Zikmund. His results on financial risk supported Vincent and Zikmund's findings. However, he did not find any significant differences with social risk when using the multiplicative relationship between uncertainty and consequences (components of risk). He then tested each component separately and found that gift purchases were significantly more concerned about the "consequences" of a bad experience with the product than non-gift purchasers, whereas the uncertainty dimension was not significantly different for the two groups.

Additionally, contrary to Weigl's expectations, there were no significant differences found for either the extent of information search or the time spent in this search activity. However, Gr°nhaug (1972) found that buyers of tableware utilized different types and sources of information depending upon whether the purchase was for personal use or for a gift.

Gift purchasers have also been found to be more likely to begin shopping with a pre-specified target price range than those buying the same items for personal use (Ryan, 1977). Belk (1977a) suggests that this is because gift-giving participants are seeking fair exchange.

Gift Context Studies

Because gift-giving has been and is still being approached from so many diverse directions, there must be a clear delineation made of the various dimensions of gift-giving which should be of interest to marketers. These dimensions have been developed primarily by a review of Belk's enumeration of dimensions and research efforts and Lowes, Turner and Wills' review (1971) of four important marketing studies on gift-giving, including three British studies (Bradford study, Gallup study, National Opinion Poll study) and an American study, all conducted in the mid-sixties.

Occasion. The frequency of all gift-giving occasions as reported by Belk's 1973 Philadelphia sample is indicated in Table 1. Bussey (1967) reports similar findings for the two top categories in a British study except in reverse order of prevalence. Then, cultural differences begin to show up, with the third most prevalent gift-giving occasion being holiday trips in England.

Belk (1977a) hypothesized that the price of gifts bought for close family members would be higher than for all others. This was found to be true but the relationship was not strong. However, when examined by occasion, the relationships were much stronger, with Christmas, weddings and anniversaries providing occasions for more expensive gift-giving (Table 1).



Relationship Between Giver and Receiver. Data from the Bradford study was used to compile a reciprocity coefficient to indicate the degree of reciprocation between various parties in the gift-giving situation (Lowes, et. al., 1971). This ratio was simply:

                    No. of presents received from

                       No. of presents given to

It was below 1 for children, in-laws, father, unmarried brothers, near 1 for spouses, mother, uncle, neighbors, and greater than 1 for business contacts, friends, and workmates.

Further, Belk compiled a table of gift recipients by the frequency of gifts received. This can be compared to a similar table which can be compiled from the information provided from the Bradford study, after Christmas gifts had been eliminated. The closeness of the percentages, when comparable, are phenomenal considering the variations in the two studies.



Type of Gift Selected. Another important element in looking at gift-giving is the type of gift selected. Belk's Table of Frequency of Gifts Reported is reproduced here as Table 3. It is interesting to note that the clear favorite is clothing. This same result was reported in the English Gallup Poll survey on Christmas gifts.

The Bradford study tried to categorize the most relevant types of gifts given by occasion. It indicated that personal gifts were the most popular gifts at Christmas, followed by novelties and then household items. Weddings and engagements were characterized by household gifts. Personal gifts were predominant on birthdays, anniversaries and Mother's/Father's Days. Money gifts came into significant use only on birthdays.

Other Descriptive Information. Belk described some interesting descriptive results of his gift-giving study: (1) Gift-giving appears to be a pleasurable act for most people over most occasions, (2) Gift selection was often aided by others (38% of sample received hints, requests, or were aware of recipient's desires, (3) The shopping experience for gift purchases was characterized as very easy or fairly easy by almost 2/3 of the sample; less than 1/3 required more than 1 hour shopping time.

One final interesting finding noted in the Bradford study was an attempt to enumerate the primary reasons for giving (Table 4). There was no attempt in this study to relate the reasons below to specific occasions, which would have provided some additional insights. As Lowes, Turner and Wills suggest, most of the below occasions are happy occasions. Once these occasions have become established, a social norm for gift-giving compels one to conform, thus, the rather high percentage of people answering "expected thing." There is still much left to be examined within gift-giving behavior. However, these preliminary studies give an excellent indication of the direction that future descriptive studies should follow.






There are two different ways to approach the study of gift-giving, viewing gift-giving as either a situational variable or as the primary variable of interest. Descriptive studies, such as Belk's 1973 study and the three British studies, plus Belk's work on balance theory, self-concept and socialization and Ward and Caron's socialization paper are of the latter nature.

Gift-Giving as a Situational Variable

However, some of the other studies, such as Weigl's perceived risk, Gr°nhaug's information sources and Ryan's appliance study, really used gift-giving as a situational variable and looked primarily at how gift buying differed from non-gift buying.

Gift-giving is a rich area to be incorporated into any study of consumer behavior where situational variables will increase the accuracy of predictions. Gift-giving has been found to be related to risk perception, information sources and expected price ranges used. Further, several researchers have suggested (based on no empirical findings) that a gift-buying situation increases the importance of the purchase (Granbois, 1963 and Katona and Mueller, 1955). Thus, gift-giving situations probably increase the level of involvement in the purchase decision, which has a number of important implications for marketing.

An Interactive Gift-Giving Paradigm

Gift-giving pervades through all levels of consumer behavior. A beginning approach to gift-giving requires a four-stage process including: (1) Purchase Stage, (2) Interaction/Exchange Stage, (3) Consumption Stage, (4) Communication/Feedback Stage.

Figure I models the four stages, their component parts and the various interrelationships between the two primary parties, the giver and the receiver. Because gift exchange is often two-sided, the giver may also be a receiver and vice versa during the same time interval. Or the exchange may be one-sided and due to the interpretation of the first gift coupled with the observation of a need or occasion the process is often replicated (reciprocity, following some time lag) with the giver becoming the receiver and vice versa.



The interactive paradigm suggests that there are two parties in the process, rather than just one as normally visualized in consumer behavior models. The purchase stage includes the giver's observation of a reason or occasion, internal and external search and the actual purchase including subsidiary activities (gift wrapping, etc.). At all of these points, the receiver may be building up suspense and anticipation and may have even aided the giver by giving him hints or gift suggestions.

During the interaction stage, the gift is exchanged. It is at this stage that the receiver interprets the gift and its meaning and the giver interprets the receiver's pleasure in the gift. Both of these interpretations strongly influence the return gift and future gift giving. Further, the receiver may conspicuously display (wear, use) the new gift immediately, which allows for further interpretation by the giver.

The consumption stage can be very simply viewed as the usage or storage of the gift, which further influences the receiver's return gift and the giver's interpretation of the receiver's pleasure. Finally, the communication stage involves the receiver communicating to others and to the giver his satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the gift.

Purchase Stage. This stage includes the giver becoming aware of either an underlying reason to give or an upcoming occasion, that is generally associated with gift-giving, or a combination of the two. Both specific reasons and specific occasions have been catalogued but not cross referenced in earlier studies. Initial studies have investigated what is purchased and price ranges by occasions.

The search process has only been touched upon by past studies. These studies indicate that a large percentage of gift purchasers get hints or suggestions, use their ideal concept primarily in terms of gift selection, perceive greater risk consequences, use different sources of information, but the search process is relatively easy and does not seem to involve more information search than non-gift purchases.

If one presumes that the majority of Udell's (1966) sample were gift-purchasers (implied but never specifically defined as such), then from this study of small appliance purchases shortly before Christmas, the following summarizations can be made about gift buyers' behavior patterns (in regards to one type of gift purchase): (1) Most of the purchases (73%) were planned prior to shopping in a store; 13% after visiting a retail store. (2) Nearly 60% of the respondents had shopped for the small appliance only in the store where the purchase was made.

The above would suggest gift purchases are highly planned as far as type of item to be purchased. However, this does not suggest that purchasers had planned their brand and model. But we still do not have information on what cues are used, which product attributes are the most relevant and how important brand image is.

The above conclusions also suggest that gift purchasers rely primarily on one store. Store image, as well as brand image, are both conspicuous aspects that give the gift receiver cues as to the value the giver is trying to impart. If store image is a very important cue (due to gift box, return policies or just the buyer's awareness that the recipient may need to return the item) then shopping behavior may be drastically affected. For example, many previous studies have indicated that individuals tend to shop in stores of equivalent social class (Martineau, 1958). Does this change when the purchaser is buying a gift for someone in a different social class or where the purchaser wishes to impress the receiver, even in the same social class, by a prestigious store name?

Price, another important attribute in gift purchase behavior, seems to be relied on heavily as an indicator of quality, and expected price ranges are not unusual according to earlier studies. However, this is a complex topic which needs much more exploration.

The next step after search is the purchase and the gift wrapping procedure, card purchase, mailing procedure and anything else that leads up to the point of exchange. These procedures really involve the store's services. How important is gift wrapping, mailing, delivery and lenient return policies on the gift purchaser's decision to shop one store rather than another?

While the giver is progressing through all these various steps, anticipation or suspense is often involved with the receiver. Different levels of anticipation will be aroused dependent on the receiver's awareness of the giver's actions and previous gift-giving experiences with the giver. Gifts are kept secret or hidden for the sake of the giver as well as for the receiver because of the cruciality of the recipient's response to the gift (Schwartz, 1967).

Interactive/Exchange Stage. Schwartz suggested that the gift-giving occasion may be insulated by other activities, such as a Christmas dinner, so as to de-emphasize the sudden release of built-up suspense. Belk (1977a) discussed the one-sided versus two-sided exchange procedure and the communication aspects of the gift exchange. Thus, the receiver interprets the meaning of the gift and this may affect his subsequent gift-giving behavior with the giver and his attitudes toward the giver.

The giver, realizing that social obligation may cause the receiver to feign pleasure in the gift, looks for whatever relevant cues are available to determine how the receiver felt about the gift. Thus, the receiver's reaction to the gift will be carefully observed by the giver. The nature of the gift will dictate what additional cues will be used. For example, can the product be immediately consumed (such as candy) or must it be conspicuously displayed or worn (such as a picture, vase or clothing)?

Consumption Stage. This stage includes the usage and/or storage of the gift. Was the gift returned because it did not adequately meet the receiver's needs? What types of gifts are returned most often and what are the predominant reasons for these returns? How does dissatisfaction in product use relate to gifts? Satisfaction has been found to be affected by expectation levels (Cardoza, 1965). The question then becomes how is expectation level related to gift anticipation? Are levels higher due to the surprise nature of gifts or lower because the item was not personally selected?

Communication/Feedback Stage. The final stage in the gift-giving process occurs after the receiver has used the gift for a period. Often, the receiver gives additional feedback to the giver. The receiver may express his satisfaction with the product after usage. The giver may, consciously or unconsciously, look for further reinforcement that the gift was satisfactory. The classic example of this is the display of disliked gifts put up Just before arrival of out-of-town parents or relatives, who are sure to look for the display of these articles. The items are then removed again as soon as the visitors drive off. This type of untruthful but tactful behavior clouds perceptions held by parties towards the gifts. This continuing feedback will affect the interpretation the giver makes of the receiver's satisfaction of the product and will, in turn, affect the giver's self-perception and attitudes towards the product, brand, store purchased in, the information source used, etc.


This paper has been an attempt to consolidate the literature on gift-giving and to suggest a simple paradigm for the continuing study of gift-giving within consumer behavior involving many implications for marketing management. Hopefully, this consolidation and approach to gift-giving behavior will be able to stimulate readers to pursue the many avenues of research still left totally unexplored.

Gift-giving is a pervasive form of consumer behavior engaged in on a frequent basis by all members of modern society. Gift-purchasing, gift-exchange, gift-consuming and gift-communication are separate but overlapping areas in which future research may explore gift-giving behavior. Only by consciously studying and conscientiously describing gift-giving behavior will important relationships between variables be ascertained and applied to marketing management.


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