THE GIFT RIGHT OUT:
Christmas shopping in the U.S. has been a reliable source of anxiety and stress for well over a century. “As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is eaten, the great question of buying Christmas presents begins to take the terrifying shape it has come to assume in recent years,” the New York Tribune wrote in 1894. But recently millions of Americans, instead of trudging through malls in a desperate quest for the perfect sweater, have switched to buying gift cards. The National Retail Federation expects that Americans will buy close to twenty-five billion dollars’ worth of gift cards this season, up thirty-four per cent from last year, with two-thirds of shoppers intending to buy at least one card; gift cards now rival apparel as the most popular category of present. This is, in part, because of clever corporate marketing: stores like gift cards because they amount to an interest-free loan from customers, and because recipients usually spend more than the amount on the card—a phenomenon that retailers tenderly refer to as “uplifting” spending. But the boom in gift cards is also a rational response to the most important economic fact about Christmas gift giving: most of us just aren’t that good at it.