Natasha Frost: Holidays over, could we have done better with gifting?

Natasha Frost, on

Published in Business News

With the holiday season fresh in our minds — and the endless sweaters, candles and electronic gadgets still stacked on dresser tops, awaiting their spot in the back of closets — let’s review gift-giving strategies and resolve to do better next time.

Research tells us you’re probably worse at picking out gifts than you think you are. Most gifters overvalue the element of surprise and what they think people want, and undervalue the usefulness of a gift and of giving people what they say they want.

Another common mistake? Giving “stuff,” rather than experiences. Though people often say they prefer receiving experiences, they tend not to give them, favoring the longevity of a sweater or set of steak knives over a night at the theater or dinner for two.

There’s a “greater emotional intensity evoked from consuming an experience,” University of Toronto researcher Cindy Chan reports in an academic paper. When you give a friend or family member a fun experience, it makes them think of you fondly while they do it — more so than if you’d given them a thing.

Experiences while the pandemic drags on:

—Pick a meal kit from the marketplace GoldBelly and give the experience of a high-end restaurant meal at home. Instead of dinner at Momofuku, you might buy a family of four Momofuku chef David Chang’s iconic pork shoulder dish, which arrives ready to put in the oven, or a full lox brunch from New York City’s Russ and Daughters.

—Know someone on a hunt for calm? Give a voucher for online meditation classes from MNDFL. The intro course, held in 60-minute sessions over four Sundays, is a good primer, though the studio also offers unlimited streamed classes and one-on-one sessions.

—If you can’t be together in person, do a virtual cooking class together instead. The Table Less Traveled offers courses from chefs around the world.

—If you’re a fabulous chef yourself, with a much-coveted secret recipe for challah, mac and cheese, or avgolemono, get the ingredients required delivered to your loved one’s home and host the class over Zoom yourself.


—Nature remains a pleasure that can be enjoyed relatively safely right now. Give a year of experiences with an annual pass for the U.S. National Park Service, providing free access to more than 2,000 stunning recreation areas. You might want to personalize the gift further by creating a custom Google map of particularly beautiful sites within driving distance.

—A more unusual option: A Capetown, South Africa-based shark conservationist offers private 90-minute online shark experiences, packed full of fun facts and jaw-dropping footage. You can join a larger group or set up a smaller private experience for a family of shark enthusiasts. Search “Airbnb experiences Capetown shark.”

Experiences worth waiting for:

According to UCLA researcher Cassie Mogilner Holmes, people don’t really mind having to wait for the opportunity to take part in an experience. While waiting for physical “stuff,” as anyone who’s ever watched a delivery tracker knows, is mostly irritating and “felt as impatience,” waiting for an experience is “hedonically superior” and “felt as excitement” instead.

Combine a physical experience with some smaller token to enjoy in the meantime:

—Give keen travelers an Airbnb voucher to put toward some forthcoming trip. (There’s no expiration date on these.) In your accompanying card, include movie recommendations to enjoy in the meantime, themed around a suggested destination — a trip to Tokyo might lend itself to watching the noodle classic “Tampopo” or reveling in animated films from beloved Studio Ghibli, many of which are now on Netflix.

—Offer classical music lovers a gift voucher for a nearby symphony or opera company. New York’s Metropolitan Opera offers a voucher with a five-year expiration date. Suggest a title from the 2021/2022 season the gift recipient might enjoy along with selected YouTube recordings from earlier productions.

—The site Cloud 9 Living boasts thousands of experiences across the U.S., many themed around tasting wine or whiskey. Gift a certificate (no expiration date) with suggestions on tasting experiences they might enjoy when it’s safe to do so, and a bottle to enjoy while they wait.

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