Three Papers on Gift-Giving: a Comment

Douglas J. Tigert, University of Toronto
[ to cite ]:
Douglas J. Tigert (1979) ,"Three Papers on Gift-Giving: a Comment", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 332-334.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 332-334


Douglas J. Tigert, University of Toronto


Is Gift-Giving A Legitimate Research Area?

Notwithstanding the fact that gift-giving has received little attention by the marketing profession, the study of gift-giving has a long history, primarily in the area of cultural anthropology. Belshaw's book (1965), "Traditional Exchange and Modern Markets," which is given short shrift -- and by only one of the three papers -- provides an exciting treatise on gift giving as both a medium of exchange and an instrument of social reciprocity. The studies of the Brobriands of Papua in New Guinea and the Kwakiutl Indians of northern British Columbia clearly point to the important role of gift giving both as a generator of power and as a medium for social exchange and reciprocity. Interwoven throughout these studies is the role of gifts in establishing ceremonial wealth and status.

From the viewpoint of marketing, there are a number of areas that are worthy of intensive study. They fall in- to distinct classifications:

i) Product boundaries within the gift "situations." For example, little research has been done to establish the competitive set of products that enters the cognitive set for various gift-giving situations (family member, intimate friend, casual acquaintance, etc.). Along a similar vein, little research has been done on price-point boundaries for various gift-giving situations.

ii) Product-line policy for manufacturers and retailers who depend heavily on gift-giving for a large proportion of their total sales. A sub-category of the above might look only at packaging issues for products that are purchased for self versus gifts.

iii) Retail exploitation for specialty stores that focus on gifts (for example, Bowerings of Canada).

iv) Information processing and buyer behavior in the gift purchasing arena.

v) Gift-giving and reciprocity

All five areas above could contribute useful knowledge as an aid in the development of marketing strategy for either retailers or manufacturers. There may well be other areas worthy of study from a social or anthropological viewpoint but they are of less interest to marketers. Where do the three papers, presented here today, fit into the above research set?


Ms. Bank's paper would appear to be the literature survey chapter of a dissertation and is therefore an appropriate starting point. While this discussant is unfamiliar with most of the gift-giving literature, this paper does have a solid core of literature which overlaps with the other two papers, particularly on the key studies by Belk, Levi-Strauss, Ryans, Schwartz, and Weigl. (See presentation papers for references.)

If the literature survey in this paper is fairly exhaustive, then it is clear that the research focus in the past has been predominantly in classes iv) and v) from above, i.e., oriented towards social exchange theory, group and interactive boundaries, and identity formation. Within the marketing framework, some work has been done on information processing and risk reduction/risk perception. In addition, the relationship between perceived risk (social and financial) and the amount and type of information search has been examined. Some work has been done on frequency of gift giving, relevant gift categories for gift occasions and gift giving motivations/occasions. One of the key differentiating aspects of these studies is whether the gift itself is the focus of the study (the primary variable) or whether gift-giving is treated as a situational variable in order to study some aspect of the gift giving process. Few of the studies reported in this paper lead to significant marketing strategy implications. Yet one fact is inescapable. If the buyer behavior process in gift purchasing is significantly different from the buyer behavior process for "own purchase," or non-gift purchase, then the process itself is worthy of considerably more research effort as an aid in fine-tuning marketing strategy for both retailers and manufacturers who depend on the gift market for their survival.

The major contribution of the Banks paper is the presentation of the interactive gift-giving paradigm which dichotomizes the giver and receiver and provides a structure for research as one moves through the stages of gift giving. From a marketing perspective, only the first stage is really critical in terms of offering a fruitful research arena. That stage (the purchase stage) would include all the suggested research topics outlined earlier in this paper. As Banks concludes, little work has been done on relevant product sets, store sets, brands, product attributes, pricing strategy, packaging, etc.

Finally, the paucity of suggestions for research topics on the latter stages of the gift giving process confirms that only stage 1 of the paradigm is likely to receive future research attention.

The non-theoretical nature of the paradigm would introduce some problems for empirical testing. It is essentially descriptive in nature and not tied to any basic discipline. It does, however, provide a framework for analysis. The next stage would be a fuller exposition of buyer behavior theories in gift-giving/purchasing with the development of the relevant hypotheses.


This paper reports on an experiment, utilizing the information display board (IDB) methodology to test the level of "effort" extended in purchasing gifts for close versus distant friends. The experimental design involved the specification that blenders were appropriate for a "friend's wedding" while watches were appropriate as gift for a "close" friend. Those decisions seem somewhat arbitrary and many have in fact, mitigated the findings. The experimental design is thus affected by both use occasion and by product. In addition, the (IDB) utilized 80 cells for watches and 160 cells for blenders. Thus, one might hypothesize in advance that information search for blenders would involve significantly more search (time, brands, attributes) than the search for watches, perhaps not 50 percent more, but some hypothesized amount.

Data were collected on number of cells accessed, search time, number of brands consulted, number of attributes consulted, etc.

The analysis problem is apparent in Table 1 of the authors' paper. The four cells involved four exclusive groups who worked through the IDB on only one shopping trip; i) purchase blender for self; ii) purchase blender for wedding gift; iii) purchase watch for self and iv) purchase watch for close friend. The comparison of any two cells is impacted by differences in IDB cell numbers as well as occasion and recipient.

The search for blenders, for example, resulted in more information cells being accessed for both experimental groups compared to both groups who worked on the watches. While one might be prepared to conclude that buying blenders for self involves more search than buying blenders for a wedding gift, one cannot really say anything about blenders versus watches. This problem leads to non-comparability of data in Table 2 between watches and blenders.

It is also not clear why data on average prices paid is a good measure of "similar brand selection". Very different brand mixes could lead to the same average price paid by cell. Table 2 provides no data on statistical significance in mean scores or percentages.

Without a careful understanding of the methodological peculiarities, one might be tempted to conclude from the tables that blenders involve more search time than watches. That would be an erroneous conclusion. Without significance tests, one cannot reach any conclusions about the original hypotheses either. Finally, the authors' conclusion about marketing implications are fairly weak. Yet there are some interesting results worthy of note. First, information that was accessed fairly frequently for both watches and blenders included brand name and price. If additional research across other gift items provided the same results, then the implications for marketing strategy for both manufacturers and retailers are quite exciting. Catalogue showrooms, for example, market primarily on the basis of national brands at the lowest prices in the market. One might hypothesize that such outlets will be extremely successful, particularly since they appeal heavily to the gift-buying public. Second, each product has one critical specific attribute that seems to be very important; number of speeds for blenders and design for watches. The finding suggests a particular marketing focus for both products both in terms of advertising and package information/labeling.


Gift-giving is not the major focus of this paper. Rather, the research design examines product and situation involvement in purchasing behavior as the impact the search process in terms of stores shopped, time spend and amount of money spent under various conditions of high and low task importance and product involvement. In the authors' view, the level of effort expended in searching for a product is related to both the degree of product involvement and the level of task involvement (buying for a gift is high task involvement). Their review of the relevant literature on both product and task involvement supports that hypothesis.

One of the key research issues is the extent to which three different measures of effort (stores shopped, time spent and money spend) are independent, interactive, or substitutes.

Task involvement was dichotomized as purchasing for self versus as a gift for a close friend. Product involvement was dichotomized into low (blanket, bubble bath) versus high (jeans and record album) but the rationale rests in an unpublished paper and is not defined for this study. The dependent variables are the three "effort" measures of stores shopped, time spent and money spent but they are projective rather than self-reports of past behavior. The reliability of projective measures is unknown.

It would have been extremely helpful if the authors had reported simple mean scores on the dependent variables by treatment cell. It is also not clear that the ANOVA analysis is the correct procedure. The real sample size is not 112 but the number of cells for which we have mean scores on the dependent variables (i.e., 4)...Figure 1 requires additional explanatory notes for interpretation. The tests for main effects on low versus high product involvement and low versus high task involvement would be correct.

There is no other research with which this author is familiar that supports the notion that price paid is a measure of shopping effort.

Given some of the weaknesses in the experimental design, the authors conclude that:

i) high task involvement leads to high levels of effort on all three effort measurements,

ii) higher product involvement sometimes leads to greater effort,

iii) there is an interaction effect between task involvement and product involvement. Task involvement leads to higher anticipated effort for low but not high involvement products.

In marketing jargon, the authors conclude that higher task involvement (gift giving) can move a low involvement product to a higher level of involvement and therefore a higher level of effort. Thus, during peak purchase periods (e.g., Christmas), even products such as blankets and bubble bath, which have very different price levels, may become high involvement product classes. The problem is with the "level of involvement". It is never specified in the paper and there may well be thresholds below which no marketing implications would be forthcoming.


From a marketing perspective, only in the case where meaningful differences (translatable to marketing strategy options) occur in the buyer behavior process for gift purchasing versus purchasing for non-gift purposes, would the research direction exemplified by these two papers be worth pursuing, In this author's opinion, neither paper generates very exciting findings from that perspective. The Heeler paper clearly shows that the types of information sought by gift and non-gift buyers is virtually identical. The Clarke paper indicates that manufacturers might want to offer a higher price range for products positioned in the gift market. They already do. They also look for wide distribution because gift purchasers shop more stores.

From the viewpoint of the manufacturers who are dependent on the gift market, there are much more interesting research questions. Is their product clearly perceived to be in the gift set and if not how do they get it there? How do they enhance the status of their product as an appropriate gift. What are the dimensions of "gifts"? What are the product boundaries and do they differ by type of gift (important versus non-important gift)? What are the relevant price ranges? What is the most effective retail strategy? How can more gift-giving occasions be generated? How can gift giving be made more important. Can the traditional social reciprocity mores of older cultures be re-introduced and fostered? Can the notion of reciprocity be used more effectively in advertising copy? In short, can the mass market be manipulated into more expensive gift-giving. And how? Finally, how does the manufacturer generate a higher level of product involvement for his products?