Ho, Ho, Woe: Christmas Shopping For &Quot;Difficult&Quot; People

ABSTRACT - This study is a qualitative examination of gift selection strategies used by Christmas shoppers. While conducting this study, we noticed that shoppers described certain recipients as difficult to buy for. Thus, we explore the following issues: 1) who consumers identify as difficult; 2) why these recipients are perceived as difficult; and 3) what strategies consumers use in selecting gifts for difficult recipients. As such, this paper complements recent research by Sherry, et al. (1991a, 1991b) on the "dark side" of gift exchange behavior. Implications of the findings are discussed.


Cele Otnes, Young Chan Kim, and Tina M. Lowrey (1992) ,"Ho, Ho, Woe: Christmas Shopping For &Quot;Difficult&Quot; People", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 482-487.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 482-487


Cele Otnes, University of Illinois

Young Chan Kim, University of Illinois

Tina M. Lowrey, University of Illinois


This study is a qualitative examination of gift selection strategies used by Christmas shoppers. While conducting this study, we noticed that shoppers described certain recipients as difficult to buy for. Thus, we explore the following issues: 1) who consumers identify as difficult; 2) why these recipients are perceived as difficult; and 3) what strategies consumers use in selecting gifts for difficult recipients. As such, this paper complements recent research by Sherry, et al. (1991a, 1991b) on the "dark side" of gift exchange behavior. Implications of the findings are discussed.

For almost two decades, consumer behaviorists have been interested in the study of gift exchange. Such issues as the influence of motivations (Wolfinbarger, 1990; Goodwin, et al., 1990), perceived risk (Heeler, et al., 1979; Mattson, 1982), balance (Belk, 1976) and involvement (Clarke and Belk, 1979; Belk, 1982) on such behavior have been explored. And while Belk (1979) compares the appropriate dimensions of gifts across some common occasions, researchers generally have not focused upon the gift exchange activities pertaining to a particular event.

However, some attention has been paid to gift exchange surrounding the Christmas holiday. Belk (1979) notes that Christmas gifts selected by parents often served as socialization agents. Caplow's (1982, 1984) studies of Christmas gift-giving behavior in "Middletown" reveal that people unknowingly follow specific rules pertaining to the display and distribution of gifts. More recently, Sherry and McGrath (1989) reaffirm Caplow's earlier finding that Christmas shopping is the "work of women" (p. 162). Lastly, Fischer and Arnold (1990) examine the influence of gender role attitudes upon Christmas shopping, and find that male and female shoppers with more liberal attitudes searched longer for, and bought more gifts, than did those with more traditional attitudes.

These studies have certainly improved our understanding of gift exchange at Christmastime. Yet the economic importance of the holiday -- with expenditures of Christmas gifts in America placed at $37 billion in 1990 (Conference Board, 1990) -- makes the study of Christmas gift-buying and gift-giving worthy of continued investigation.


The data for this paper emerged from a larger study on Christmas gift exchange. While collecting and interpreting our data, we noticed that most gift-givers categorized some of their recipients as particularly difficult to shop for. With this finding in mind, we have narrowed the focus of this paper to address the following research questions:

1. Who are the difficult people on gift buyers' Christmas lists?

2. Why are some recipients considered difficult to shop for?

3. What gift selection strategies do consumers employ in selecting gifts for difficult people?

By examining these questions, this paper complements the recent research by Sherry, et al., (1991a, 1991b) and Rucker, et al. (1991) on the "dark side" of gift-buying. Furthermore, it examines gift selection strategies used for a distinct subset of recipients.


To recruit informants, we placed ads in a university paper and a local paper of a Midwestern city (population 100,000) during the first week of November, 1990. To solicit consumers with more complex Christmas shopping tasks, students were requested not to answer the ad. The copy explained that we wished to conduct two in-depth interviews with each informant, accompany them on two Christmas shopping trips and hold a brief follow-up interview in January. An incentive of $30 was offered for participation.

Out of the 18 volunteers for the study, we chose the 15 consumers who indicated they would be accessible for all stages of the research. Each researcher was then assigned five informants.

In terms of demographic characteristics, 14 out of the 15 informants were women. The literature indicates that women are more involved in Christmas shopping (Caplow, 1982; Cheal, 1988; Sherry and McGrath, 1989). Thus, while we were disappointed by the lack of response by men, we were not surprised by it. The socioeconomic status of the informants ranged from lower middle class to middle class, and ages ranged from the early twenties to the mid-forties.

With the exception of the follow-up interview, the study was conducted from mid-November to one week before Christmas, 1990. To establish a basis for comparison across informants, we asked each one the same questions during the preliminary interviews. The first shopping trip occurred at least one week after the preliminary interview, so that we could acquire information about gift selection activity that we had not actually observed. As each of us became familiar with our informants' shopping tasks, we created specific questions relating to their tasks, a procedure similar to what Lincoln and Guba (1985) call "memoing."



The length of each shopping trip ranged from 1-2 hours. Informants chose the sites for all shopping trips. These included discount stores, department stores, drugstores, hardware stores and a wide variety of specialty shops.


Who Are the Difficult People on Gift Buyers' Christmas Lists?

Informants named 207 people as potential Christmas gift recipients. Of these, they specifically described 47 people as "difficult" recipients. Table 1 lists the relationships of these recipients to our informants. The largest number of difficult recipients are what Caplow (1984) terms "affinal" relatives, or people who are peripherally related to givers. However, a considerable number of more closely related family members were also considered difficult. Finally, some difficult recipients -- including friends and teachers -- are not related to informants at all.

Why Are Some Recipients Considered Difficult?

Our shoppers offered nine reasons why they categorized gift recipients as difficult:

1. Perceived Lack of Necessity/Desire. Almost one-fourth of "difficult" recipients were characterized as such because givers stated these people either did not want or did not need any type of gift. For instance, Anne (All names have been changed to ensure anonymity.) commented that her 94-year old grandmother has "got[ten] everything she ever wanted." Likewise, Betsy noted that her grandparents and her father were difficult because they "have everything. There isn't anything I could buy them that they would want and wouldn't have. Or sometimes that they would even like."

2. Fear of Being Unappreciated. This category -- mentioned by seven of the informants -- emerged through descriptions of past gift choices that, in givers' opinions, had "flopped." Karen described her experience as follows;

K: One year my ex-husband and I, we made something for my Mom in the studio...between the two of us, we thought it was great. And as soon as we saw the look on my Mom's face, we knew that she didn't get it. It was a sculpture, she just didn't get it. We should have thought ahead of time, where is she going to put this, in terms of how she had decorated her environment.

Informants were also concerned with whether "difficult" recipients might appreciate gifts presented at the upcoming Christmas holiday. Patty commented on getting her husband a train set:

P: I want to get him something nice, and he doesn't want me to spend any money on him...Itold him it was a lot of money and he said,"Don't get me anything, don't get me anything." I said, "I'll go and get it and if you want to hurt my feelings and break my heart, and return it, then go ahead." He just laughed.

3. Different Tastes/Interests. Many recipients appeared problematic because their tastes and interests contradicted those of our informants. Hannah and Liz both reported that their fathers' tastes were dissimilar enough to hamper their gift-buying efforts. Furthermore, the tastes of some "significant others" were cited as stumbling blocks to gift selection. Shopping with Kate, one of us observed:

[After looking at wrenches for her boyfriend, Kate] said she couldn't believe that her boyfriend wanted this, and what's more, that he would want her to buy it for him. She didn't know anything about them, couldn't he just buy them himself and let her get something else?

4. Unfamiliarity with the Recipient. Still other recipients were regarded as difficult because they were, for all practical purposes, strangers to informants. Many recipients described in this manner were affinal relatives, such as in-laws, cousins, uncles or stepparents. Karen described the dilemma of shopping for her stepfather as follows:

I don't know him very well. He married my Mom after I moved out. I like the guy, but he's my Mom's husband and I...after a certain amount of flannel shirts and tools, it's like...I just don't know what the man wants. So I find it very difficult to shop for him.

5. Perceived Recipient Limitations. We also observed that often, our informants regarded some aspect of a recipient's physical condition or personality to be a limiting factor in gift selection. For example, Anne described her boyfriend's mother in the following manner:

A: She's kind of an odd person...She doesn't do a lot...she can't drive, so she's at home all day. And what she does, she'll like sit on her bed and play cards...I, you know, have found so many things that could get her to do something and they don't work. It's like, I've just given up on that.

Other givers also discussed recipients' lack of hobbies as a stumbling block in the gift-buying process. Patty noted that her father "doesn't do anything...He's not into sports or anything, he really doesn't have a hobby -- except for sleeping. Get him a [sleeping] bag, I don't know."

Informants also mentioned that ill or elderly recipients were difficult to shop for. Furthermore, recipients who were passing from one stage of the life cycle to another were often categorized as "difficult." For instance, Rhonda noted that she "usually got her [mother] clothes for work but she was retiring soon, so that wouldn't be a good idea."

6. Imposed Giver Limitations. In contrast to the limitations described above were those imposed a priori on the gift-selection process by givers. Often, these took the form of pre-set spending limits. Lana, who had always spent just a few dollars on a gift for her niece, commented that "It was easy [staying in that price range] when she was little, now it's hard to find [a] $2-3 [gift] for a big girl." In addition, Hannah noted that she always had to choose "something small" for her father, because she mailed him his Christmas gift.

7. Imbalance. Desire for balanced gift exchange has been explored in the literature (c.f., Belk, 1976). For two of our informants, perceived imbalance appeared to explain why certain recipients were difficult. Betsy noted that because her in-laws always spent more on her and her husband for Christmas, she often found herself "going `Oh God, what am I going to get them'"? Likewise, Patty described her husband's Christmas shopping as "very lavish, which is ironic...He just thinks it's OK to spend lots of money on you, but he doesn't want you to spent a lot of money on him."

8. Personality Conflicts. Many researchers (c.f., Barnett; 1954, Sherry and McGrath, 1989) have observed that the obligatory nature of much Christmas gift exchange may mean some gift-buyers find themselves buying gifts for people with whom they are experiencing conflict.

Our informants mentioned this situation five times. The most extreme example occurred with Anne. She had recently borrowed money from her grandmother. Unlike other relatives who had borrowed from her, Anne had to pay "dear old Grandma" back. Her bitterness over their arrangement could explain why Anne was so apathetic while shopping for her grandmother's gift:

After a few minutes of wandering [around the store] Anne said she needed to find domestics because that's where [a lap blanket] would be...She looked at all the various designs they had. They had some large ones which were more than she wanted to pay...Then she found one smaller lap blanket which was the price she wanted...She mentioned that would be "good enough."

9. Thwarting of a Gift Selection. While informants identified most "difficult" recipients early in the Christmas shopping season, some recipients appeared to "become" difficult when a gift idea that was either considered or actually purchased by an informant proved to be inappropriate. For example, Patty bought a stroller for her cousin, then learned that it was not the one on her cousin's list. Her frustration with this experience was revealed on the second shopping trip, when the researcher commented it appeared Patty was almost done shopping:

Patty agreed but said she was tired of the whole thing...She said she had just run out of steam and wasn't in the spirit of it at all. She mentioned that she was particularly frustrated about the stroller. She had even already thrown away [her cousin's] list and had to call her mother to find out what was on it.

What Strategies Are Used When Shopping for "Difficult" People?

Informants employed ten gift strategies when selecting gifts for difficult people.

Latching On. Of all the gift strategies used for difficult recipients, one we call "Latching On" occurred most often. With this strategy, the giver conducts fairly extensive external and/or internal search early in the Christmas shopping season, and then arrives at a gift idea for a recipient. Consumers mentioned using newspaper ads, catalogs, stores and the information they had in memory about the recipient as information sources. However, they rarely consulted interpersonal sources when employing "Latching On" for difficult people.

"Latching On" is so termed because once givers conceive of a gift idea, they focus their buying efforts upon finding an acceptable -- or even ideal -- representation of this idea. Furthermore, once an idea is generated by "Latching On," it is rarely discarded by the gift-buyer.

"Latching On" can take two main forms. "Same As Last Year" involves buying the recipient an item similar to something that the giver has purchased them previously. The rationale behind doing so stems from the fact that a previous gift has been well-received. For example, Liz describes how last Christmas, she gave an aunt who collected frogs a frog umbrella that had been her "favorite." This year, Liz looked at a stuffed frog, a frog perfume cachet, a frog whistle, a frog Christmas ornament, frog stickers and assorted frog jewelry before buying the stickers and a frog pin. Thus, "Same As Last Year" does not necessarily mean the giver actually duplicates a previous present, but rather that he or she offers the recipient a variation of it.

The second variation of "Latching On" was labelled "New This Year." Patty used this strategy when she saw a newspaper ad for a train set early in the Christmas season and thought it would be a "neat idea" for her husband. Over the next few weeks, Patty consulted numerous stores and ads, and compared prices for the set. In addition, because her husband did not want her to buy him an expensive gift, she actually negotiated with him so that she could spend more than usual. Thus, all of her activities for his gift centered around acquiring an item that she had seen in an ad early that Christmas season.

Impulse Purchasing We also observed that when some consumers shopped for difficult people, they appeared to almost grab items off of the shelves. These spontaneous urges to buy -- as well as recipients' excitement over what they had selected in this manner -- resembles what Rook (1987) calls "impulse buying." Yet informants also expressed some concern that an item they selected in this manner matched what they knew about the recipient.

We also observed that immediately before consumers employed "Impulse Buying," they experienced an instant recognition that a gift item in the store was appropriate for a difficult recipient. We called this phenomenon "sudden enlightenment." The following episode illustrates this occurrence:

[Karen] started talking about what she was going to get her brother and sister-in-law.She said that the only thing she knew [he] liked was boxing... I told her how we had just watched "Rocky" the night before. She kind of perked up and asked me how much movies cost. [We went into the movie store]...she was over in the music video section and she kneeled down. She picked up a video of the new "The Wall" concert...She stood up and said "That's it...Pink Floyd is one common interest that I know they have." [Total time: about 20 seconds.]

Making Gifts Many informants noted that making gifts was time-consuming, yet some stated they used this strategy for difficult recipients "out of desperation." This point is supported by the fact that often, informants did not begin making gifts for difficult people until close to Christmas. For example, Betsy could not decide what to give her son's teachers, and at the last minute made them food. Likewise, Rhonda decided two weeks before Christmas to make her father a lap blanket, but then did not have time to finish it. Thus, this strategy often seems to be a "last resort" for informants.

Pawning Off This strategy, used in four gift-buying instances, involved delegating the selection of gifts for a difficult person to someone else. For instance, Lana said that her husband "could figure out" what to get his brothers and uncles. Likewise, for the past few years, Jane let her children decide what to give their grandparents and teachers. And after two unsuccessful shopping trips, Andrew asked his girlfriend to pick out gifts for his female roommate because she "knew her tastes better."

Thus, "Pawning Off" can apparently take two forms. Namely, givers can either delegate the task of thinking of a gift idea, or they can delegate the entire search and purchase process as well.

Buy What I Like In using this strategy, informants simply bought recipients something they would like themselves. For instance, Hannah said she had no idea what to get her father for Christmas. During the shopping trips, she showed tremendous interest in tiny glass ornaments, often kneeling down at displays and telling the researcher exactly which ornaments she owned. On the last trip, Hannah told the researcher she was going to buy similar ornaments for her father.

Likewise, Kate said she had no interest in buying her boyfriend tools and other "practical things" he had requested. But she did buy him a magazine that she thought was cute and an ornament in a series that "they" were collecting (although she had purchased all of them).

Joint Recipients This strategy, in which one gift was selected that could be presented to more than one difficult recipient, was often used when the recipient was relatively unfamiliar to the giver. Karen used it when buying one gift for both her brother and sister-in-law. Likewise, Kate reported that she counted her boyfriend's parents as "one ...because I usually just try to get them one thing."

Recycling Two givers used the strategy of giving recipients items that they had bought for themselves, but for some reason had decided to discard. Apparently, this strategy was only used when the giver had little regard for the recipient. For example, Liz reported she did not get along well with her father. She later revealed that the shirt she had used for her Halloween costume was going to be her father's Christmas present. Likewise, Betsy was considering giving her husband's "old and mean" grandmother a scarf that she had bought for herself, but that her husband disliked.

Habitual Buying A few givers noted that they selected certain types of gifts for difficult people because they could not (or would not) think of anything else to get them. Rebecca stated that if she drew a man's name in the family gift exchange, she always bought him "a shirt...because there's nothing else to think of." Patty noted that she usually got her father tins of popcorn because it was one of the few things she knew he would like. This strategy differs from "Latching On," in that givers employ little or no new search when selecting these habitually purchased items.

Joint Giving One person used the strategy of actually "going in" with someone in her family to buy a gift for a difficult recipient. Specifically, because Rhonda's mother was retiring and no longer needed "clothes for work," Rhonda was at a loss as to what to buy her. During the second interview, Rhonda reported that her brother had "decided we should buy her a VCR for Christmas -- I was really relieved!"

Relationship-Affirming Gifts One giver chose gifts for difficult relatives that echoed or reaffirmed her relationship with them. For example, one shopping trip with Betsy revolved around trying to find a coffee mug that had the word "Grampa" on it. In addition, she gave her grandmother a suncatcher for her window. The poem on it began "Grandmothers are...."


In examining the nature of the strategies we identified, it appears that they can be distinguished along two main dimensions. The first of these is whether a gift-selection strategy is more recipient- or giver-centered. Specifically, different strategies are apparently used, depending upon whether a gift idea is more influenced by the giver's or the recipient's desires. Thus, this is similar to Belk's (1979) distinction between self-directed and other-directed giving.

The second dimension that differentiates these strategies is whether the strategy helps the giver more to minimize social risk or psychological risk. Heeler, at al.(1978) note that the perceived social risk in a gift-buying relationship is in large part due to "the pressure to be perceived well in a close continuing relationship" (p.326). However, perceived psychological risk has yet to be defined for a gift-buying situation. Given the complexity of the Christmas shopping task for our informants, we define psychological risk as the perceived level of internal discomfort that a gift-giver experiences when he or she must grapple with an onerous buying task.

Figure 1 depicts how the gift selection strategies used for difficult people can be arranged with respect to these two dimensions. While it is likely that social and psychological risk are present in every gift exchange, it appears that consumers shopping for difficult people select a strategy that helps them minimize one type of risk over the other. For example, those strategies that help consumers select a gift acceptable to the recipient involve either extended search (e.g., Latching On), or some sort of personalization of a gift. Simply put, it would seem difficult to reject a gift such as a "grampa" mug, because to do so might be interpreted as rejecting the relationship as well.

Likewise, those giver-centered strategies that involve the lessening of the gift-buying task tend to result in either delegation of gift selection (Pawning Off or Joint Giving) or minimizing the effort of gift selection. Indeed, the most extreme form of minimizing, Recycling, involves skipping the purchase phase of gift selection entirely.

As would be expected, strategy use will vary greatly, depending upon the nature and salience of the giver/recipient relationship. It is therefore not surprising that the more demanding types of gift selection strategies -- in terms of search effort -- are usually used when the relationship with the recipient is more salient to the giver. Likewise, shoppers used those strategies that delegate or minimize gift selection for relatives who were less closely related or for people with whom they were experiencing conflict.

Several questions arise from our interpretation. First, it is unclear whether a recipient is categorized as difficult before a consumer attempts to use a gift-selection strategy, or after he or she attempts to use a strategy that then proves to be inappropriate. One clue stems from the fact that many of our informants appeared to have a favorite strategy for selecting Christmas gifts. Thus, a recipient might become "difficult" when a giver realizes that use of a preferred strategy would not result in an appropriate gift.


Many findings of this study should interest consumer behaviorists, marketers and consumers alike. Above all else, it appears that the Christmas buying task is a much more complex phenomenon than has been previously described. Furthermore, consumers may consciously or unconsciously weigh the social and psychological risk involved in buying a gift for each recipient on their list. They then employ a strategy that helps them to both select a gift and to alleviate what they perceive to be the most burdensome type of risk for that particular situation.

And it appears that there is a tendency for certain types of people -- e.g., in-laws, stepparents and other affinal relatives -- to be labelled as difficult. This categorization appears to stem from a lack of familiarity or communication with the recipients. As such, retailers and marketers might target their efforts toward helping customers buy gifts for these types of people. Indeed, one reason that consumers may curtail search when buying for "difficult" relatives is that advertising and marketing communications may not specifically help givers select gifts for them.



Finally, it appears that consumers themselves might be able to ease the burden of Christmas shopping by taking matters into their own hands -- by actively seeking to enhance communication with those familiar with the needs and wants of gift recipients, or with the recipients themselves. Indeed, those gift-buyers who did so appeared to have fewer difficult people on their Christmas lists.


Our study: 1) explains the choice of gift selection strategy for difficult people both in terms of the origin of the gift idea and the type of risk the giver seeks to minimize; 2) reveals that Christmas gift selection strategies do not always involve the actual purchase of a gift; and 3) is the first examination of Christmas gift selection to enlist informants in a naturalistic setting, so that we can both observe gift selection processes and confirm our observations about such processes with informants. However, our study also had the following limitations: 1) we obviously could not observe every gift-selection incident that occurred; 2) our sample was comprised primarily of female middle-class shoppers; and 3) the informants that answered our ad obviously had an interest in our study, and in many cases appeared to resemble what Bellenger and Korgaonkar (1980) call "recreational shoppers." Thus, we may have examined gift selection behavior among people who invest more time and effort in Christmas shopping than is typical.


This study examines the gift-selection strategies used by Christmas shoppers for potential gift recipients who were labelled "difficult". The reasons why recipients were placed in this category were examined. We argue that the choice of gift selection strategy depends upon the choice of the giver to minimize either perceived social or psychological risk and upon the nature of the giver/recipient relationship.

We believe that our examination of Christmas gift-selection strategies has provided new insight into the most complex gift-giving occasion in America today. Hopefully, other researchers will continue exploring the issues that arose from this study.

A list of references is available on request from the authors.



Cele Otnes, University of Illinois
Young Chan Kim, University of Illinois
Tina M. Lowrey, University of Illinois


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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