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The psychology of gifting

Is giving a gift card considered acceptable?

According to consumer psychologist, Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, the appeal of gift cards is simple. She says: "A gift represents both you as a person and also what you think the person you're giving to is like. People don't want to be seen as giving the wrong thing; as misinterpreting someone's personality. 

"People won't give cash because it can be seen as an insult; like you can't be bothered. Even if a card isn't a great effort, it still seems like you've made an effort of some kind. For example, if someone's a tech enthusiast but you don't know what the latest gadgets are, then a voucher for an electrical store is a safe bet," she says.

Interpretations of what is regarded as vulgar and what is not depends on which country you are in. Jansson-Boyd says it's a question of history and culture. She points out: "The night before Greek weddings, people throw money onto the marital bed. But people the UK aren't comfortable giving money. When it's too obvious how much a present is worth, it's seen as vulgar. Indeed, in the UK, people often don't specify how much a card is loaded with." 

For Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a lecturer in retail psychology at London Metropolitan University, the gift card habit is a sign of our digital times. "Shopping behaviour is changing with the way we communicate," he says. "Because we minimise the meaningful time we spend with each other, we don't know people as well as we used to or develop an understanding of their preferences." 

According to Tsivrikos, instead of simply asking what somebody might like with the associated awkwardness of not wanting to ask for something too expensive - people are researching their gifts by seeing what people "like" on social networking websites and buying a card for the relevant store. This method of research has its own shortcomings, however, as someone's online persona reflects how they would like to be seen, rather than their true character. 

Retail consultant Clare Rayner says many consumers feel a gift card will definitely be spent on a treat, whereas cash might be used to pay for the mundane. "The giver wants to know their investment in a gift went on something desirable, but they've attempted to leave the choice of item up to the receiver", she says. 

Do the theories of these academics and consultants reflect your experiences?

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