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How technology is changing the culture of gift-giving

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The rise of social media and popularity of buying online are having a notable impact on the way consumers choose presents for friends and family.

Giving gifts to loved ones is one of humanity’s oldest practices. Throughout history, it has evolved to cater to the changing demands and preferences of society. Most recently, the advent and proliferation of internet-enabled devices has drastically transformed the way we buy and present gifts to our family and friends.

From online wish lists to charity donations and massive e-commerce platforms like Amazon, technology has meant the process of finding, purchasing and giving gifts is no longer confined to the retail stores. However, there are still inherent challenges we face when it comes to finding that perfect gift, and rather than easing the process, technology can sometimes make things more complicated.

To understand how gift-giving has changed, it is important to understand just how online shopping has transformed the way consumers are able to access and purchase gifts and services. Take the growth of the industry as an example. In 2008, online sales as a proportion of all retailing in the UK was 4.2 per cent. By November 2017, this figure had reached an impressive 17 per cent. Consumers are clearly embracing the convenience of online shopping and, with the rise of online platforms to facilitate these transactions, it’s predicted that half of all UK retail sales will be online by 2028. 

There are plenty of reasons why online shopping is growing in popularity, be it searching and comparing prices of the same product from different retailers, to reading customer reviews and avoiding the hassles of crowds and queues when visiting a physical shop. We are seeing convenience is king for the modern consumer and online shopping has become a popular avenue for buying gifts.

The rise of global social network platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter has profoundly transformed the way in which people engage with one another. An interesting aspect of this is how the rise of social media has changed people’s attitudes towards gift-giving.

Crucially, they have encouraged people to give more. Gift purchasing and sharing are now widely practised online, with a number of networks incorporating social features. Apple’s iTunes store, for instance, allows people to give gift cards or specific albums, movies or apps. Meanwhile, popular communication platforms like WeChat also enable gift-giving.

A 2013 study of online gift-giving trends on Facebook explored the changing psychology of this practice, including the impact of social influence. It found that users who received gifts on Facebook (in the form of gift cards that could be redeemed for a variety of goods and services) were 56 per cent more likely to also give a gift – seemingly inspired by receiving a gift in the first place.

The study also examined how online gifts complement or substitute for offline gifts. Nearly half of the people who gave a gift online said they would not have given one otherwise through traditional physical channels, relying instead on Facebook for its convenience. A similar number - 46 per cent - said it would have been somewhat difficult to give the recipient a gift outside of the network, most notably due to geographical distance.

There’s a much bigger trend to take note of, however. Social medial is impacting gift-giving by changing the way we discover and share new experiences. By encouraging users to post photos and videos of their activities and the products they use, potential gift options quickly appear on the radar of those scrolling through their social media feeds. This comes in all shapes and sizes – from the quirky new restaurant their friends have eaten at, to new makeup products that they’re trying.

This brings us onto another key trend taking hold of the gift-giving world. With the help of technology, those in search of more meaningful gifts have turned their attention to experience gifts, which are more tailored to the particular needs and interests of an individual.

As opposed to material gifts, experiential gifts allow the recipient to enjoy an experience, whether this is taking a writing course, say, or going to a comedy festival. The proliferation of online marketplaces like Groupon means that there’s no shortage of new experiences to gift and consumers today use the internet to find all manner of interesting and adventurous experiences to share with those close to them. Indeed, during the 2018 festive season, the UK spent approximately £1.6 billion on experience gifts.

Some might note a slight caveat, however: experience gifts are generally more expensive than traditional presents such as books and clothing. However, technology has a solution to this, too. Indeed, this was a key consideration in the creation of gifting app WhatWeWant. Rather than having to individually spend money on items that may or may not be to the recipient’s liking (and often end up being taken back to the shop or exchanged for something else), people can now pool their resources to contribute to gifts that their loved ones will see greater value in.

It is clear that technology is changing the social norms and practices that underpin how we find gifts, what we buy and how we deliver them to their intended recipient. Given the pace of technological change, we can be certain that even more new avenues will be opened up by apps and websites in coming years.

Yiannis Faf is co-founder of WhatWeWant.

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