Smart Gift Giving — How to Be Perceived As Generous While Spending Less

Or why you shouldn’t shop for value when it comes to gifts

Image by the author (CC BY-SA 4.0)

How do you give someone a good gift? It’s not easy, is it?

Well, let’s consider how the Japanese do it. Maybe we can learn something from them.

Japanese sticker shock

If you enter the Sembikiya fruit parlor in Tokyo, Japan, you’ll probably immediately turn around thinking you’ve entered a jewelry shop instead of a grocery store. And if you don’t turn around right away, you’ll surely do once you look at the prices:

  • $21 for an apple,
  • $64 for a small box of grapes,
  • $164 for a box of cherries,
  • $212 for a single watermelon.

Yep, sticker shock isn’t unique to wedding garments and the latest tech gadgets. And the above items aren’t even extreme considering how much you can spend on fruit in Japan. For instance, in 2019 two cantaloup melons were auctioned off for a jaw-dropping $45,000 or $22,500 each.

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Image by the author. Based on a photo by Kenny Timmer on Unsplash.

Now, of course it’s not grandma who buys these fruits on a random weekend to make some fruit jam. These obscenely expensive fruits are bought as gifts on special occasions. It’s a tradition in Japan and a clever one — and not just for the farmers.

The genius of gifting premium fruits — take 1

Before you write the Japanese off as crazy, consider this.

Imagine you invite me over for the holidays. You’re in the kitchen doing the dishes when I knock on your door. You dry your hands on a kitchen towel, walk over to the front door, and, when you open it, it’s me standing there:

Image by the author (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I have a big smile on my face and am holding a gift in my hands. After greeting me with “Heeeey! How good to see you!”, I hand you the gift. You accept it and follow up with the obligatory “Oh, thanks so much! That really wasn’t necessary.”

We walk into your home and make ourselves comfortable. You offer me some cookies and tea and after a bit of chitchat I smile at you and say, “Come on, open the gift already.”

“Sure, sure,” you say. Slowly and carefully you untie the golden bow at the top, slide away the ribbon from around the box, and tear off the wrapping paper.

Now comes the big moment.

I look at you with expectant eyes. You remove the lid and… What’s that? A cheap $30 cell phone. It has a clunky little antenna sticking out on one side, a greenish low-resolution display the size of your thumb, and rows of buttons instead of a touchscreen. It looks more like a TV remote than a modern cell phone.

Geez… What do you do now? If I had given you the latest flagship model from Samsung or Apple, you would’ve been impressed by my generosity. Half speechless, you would have had to say “Oh, I can’t accept this. Really, I can’t. This is waaay too generous!” But no, it’s just a cheap $30 cell phone — a pitiful gift. It’s worse than nothing.

Now, let’s rewind and enter an alternative universe.

The genius of gifting premium fruits — take 2

I knock the door. You open. It’s me again. As before, I have a big smile on my face and am holding a gift in my hands. “Heeeey!” you say. “How good to see you!” I hand you the gift and enter. We have some cookies, tea, and a little chitchat.

Everything’s the same so far. Then I say, “Come on, open the gift already.”

“Sure, sure.” You untie the golden bow, slide away the ribbon, tear off the wrapping paper, and remove the lid from the box. And what does it contain this time? A luxurious-looking black velvety box the size of your fist. It has golden hinges and a golden latch. It looks like a high-end jewelry box.

“Be careful with it,” I say, “you don’t want to damage it.”

Now you’re really curious. “What is it?” you ask.

“Open it,” I say with a smile.

You lift the latch and open the luxurious box. In it you find something white nestled within a small red cushion. You also happen to see a price tag: $25.

“Is… Is that a white strawberry?” you ask.

“Yes,” I say. “It’s a Shirou Houseki strawberry, also known as a White Jewel. It wasn’t easy to get. They are very rare. You can only get them in Japan. They’re sweeter than any red strawberry and are said to taste incredible. I wanted to give you something very special.”

A $25 strawberry? You’re seriously impressed by my generosity and give me a big hug, thanking me exuberantly.

This is the secret to be perceived as generous

If you give someone a $30 cell phone, all they’ll see is that you’ve given them a cheap phone. If, however, you buy them a single $25 deluxe strawberry, you’ll be giving them the most special and expensive strawberry they’ve ever seen. You’ll stand out as generous with your expensive gift even though your spending less money.

As the social psychologist Dr. Christopher K. Hsee put it in his study Less is better — when low‐value options are valued more highly than high‐value options:

It seems that in evaluating a gift, people are neither sensitive to the actual price of the gift, nor to the category of that gift [e.g. whether a phone or a fruit], but they are very sensitive to the relative position of the gift within its category.

In other words, if you have a fixed budget for holiday gifts and you want to make your friends and family happy, don’t shop for value. Do the exact opposite — buy the most extravagant and premium item out of a category and choose a category where these items fall within your budget.

So, if you buy them a phone, buy them the best one. And if you can’t afford that, buy them the best headphones, hat, strawberry, or toothpick — whatever is within your budget as long as it’s the best within a category.

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Science fan, cartoonist, PhD, eukaryote. Doesn't eat cats, dogs, nor other animals.

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