Trying to understand how and why people shop and buy is what I do as a consumer psychologist. Since, and because of, the recession, I've seen shoppers become more obsessed with deals and discounts. If this were simply a refusal to overpay, that wouldn't be a problem. But that's not the case. Bargain-obsessed shoppers frequently compromise on a purchase (not the right size, not a great color, not the preferred brand) because it is on sale — which is a particularly bad way to choose a gift.
Though it's fashionable to think of gift exchanges as the commercialization of the holidays, gifts have always been a deeply effective, meaningful way to connect with others.
Memorable gifts — ones that delight, ones that ignite or cement relationships — reflect the giver's taste and personality and also express his or her understanding of the recipient. That's a lot to accomplish, and it takes focus. In fact, this intense empathy is why gift-giving creates such bonds between people. It's not gratitude that strengthens relationships, but the mental and emotional process of selecting a gift. In fact, studies show that the giver gets more emotional gratification out of a thoughtful gift than the recipient; it validates that they're a caring person with significant bonds.
In the scores of interviews and ethnographies I've conducted over 18 years here's an overarching trend I've seen: Shoppers today are less likely to lovingly describe merchandise and more likely to gush over savings. In other words, the focus has shifted from what they're buying to what they're spending (often incorrectly called "saving").
For example, I asked a woman earlier this year to describe a recent favorite purchase. She excitedly listed the multiple sources of discounts she used to get a silk shirt at 70% off, but never mentioned any aspect of the shirt that impressed her. By contrast I remember a shopper I interviewed a decade ago petting her new nightgown while describing every aspect of what she loved about it, including the feel of the fabric, the cut and the brand.
It's easy to see how we became bargain-brained. At the start of the recession everyone was caught off-guard, especially retailers, who, in December 2007, were forced to unload bursting holiday inventories at clearance prices before Thanksgiving. For years afterward, offering bargains was many retailers primary survival mechanism.
The psychological motivations for shoppers also evolved during this period. For example, pre-recession, shopping was more competitive; securing a bargain was proof of one's prowess. As trust in businesses plunged during the recession, shoppers started to use bargains as reassurance of fair pricing. Then as the economy improved and online retail gave shoppers an overwhelming array of options, people began to use bargains as a way to narrow decisions to a manageable level.
The result is that discount pricing remains one of the few sure-fire ways to generate interest in products. Many retailers now price merchandise with an expectation that it won't be sold at full price. Most promotions (think "Our Giant Columbus Day Sales Event!") are simply planned price normalization — and frankly, nothing to get excited about. But most shoppers don't know that and react with heart-thumping excitement or a fear of missing out.
Add to that emotional load a sense of obligation and a deadline during holiday shopping, and it's a recipe for bad sweaters, cheap electronics and disappointment under the Christmas tree. The shoppers most heavily focused on bargains, in fact, end up spending more money, but are less satisfied with what they buy, including gifts.
By all means, set a budget for gifts. Enjoy the hustle and bustle of shops, even on Black Friday. But liberate yourself from shopping for bargains. Finding gifts that strike an emotional chord will take more work than just looking for the deepest discount, but the payoff will be immeasurably greater.
Kit Yarrow, professor emeritus at Golden Gate University, is the author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind."