If you're thinking of getting a friend, loved one, or colleague a present, you might find picking out "the perfect gift" to be an experience fraught with indecision.
You could nail the landing, of course, but if you're worried about sending the wrong impression or picking something that will ultimately land in a drawer, you can go the gift card route and leave the final choice up to them while still showing your appreciation. Either way, your decision hinges on factors both within and beyond your control, so don't get too hung up on the details.
Gift cards give the recipient the freedom to purchase whatever they'd like, up to a certain price. They remove the guesswork of giving a gift, but might also indicate a certain lack of enthusiasm on the giver's part.
A diamond necklace, a new copy of Dragon Ball FighterZ, a surprise trip to the Bahamas. What makes a traditional gift a "good" gift depends on multiple factors, including the gift itself, its value as perceived by its recipient, and its utility. Successful gifts also take into account what the recipient desires, and shouldn't just be a present you'd like to receive, or what you think will garner the most excitement upon opening. No one wants a set of collectable Dippity Dog glasses. No one.
If you're struggling to find a thoughtful gift for someone you barely know: Relax a little. Your thought doesn't count as much as you think it does, according to experiments on the psychology of gift giving and receiving.
Gift Cards: Perfect for Impersonal Gift-Giving
If you think gift cards are the lazy man's way of gift giving...you're right. There's a multitude of reasons why gift cards are a superior present, especially if information about the recipient is scarce. Situations where gift cards are acceptable or preferred include office holiday celebrations, teenage birthday parties, or as a donation to a larger, grander goal (like a gift in service of a newlywed couple's registry). No one really (save for children) expects you to know exactly what gift they want to receive, so you shouldn't feel bad if you decide a gift card is the way to go. Just make sure you get the right one (and please, save your $10 Myers card for Bill in accounting).
To be frank, there's no reason anyone should have to receive a gift card that won't be used. With open-loop gift cards from companies like American Express, you can, with little to no knowledge, provide someone with a gift they can use wherever they please.
This part goes out to all the recipients of gift cards for...let's call them "lesser stores." That Bunnings gift card your aunt Carol sent you? It probably won't receive much play if your weekend pastime is competitive Overwatch. Luckily, if you're not going to use that Nandos gift card you got during your Secret Santa party, you can always get rid of it. Sites like Gift Card Granny and Cardpool let you mail your gift card in for actual cash, or exchange it for a different gift card. While you'll lose anywhere from 2 to 25 per cent in value when converting that card to cash, you'll still have more money in your pocket than when you started. Sounds like a win to me.
Actual Gifts: A Calculated Risk
While gift cards suggest someone thought about you enough to spend some dough, actual gifts take the excitement of gift-giving to a new level. There's no greater feeling than opening a present and seeing exactly what you wanted, or something you didn't know you so desperately needed. For myself, one of the most touching gifts I've ever received was an obscure action figure from my partner after mentioning it in passing during a discussion about Japan.
One danger inherent in giving actual gifts lies in the social illness I'll refer to as "I thought you loved" syndrome. Signs include your old uncle Jim repeatedly gifting you DVD boxsets of obscure and terrible anime based on your giddy reaction upon receiving an Outlaw Star DVD boxset from him when you were 13. As a general rule, unless you can reliably posit otherwise, you should avoid buying gifts of the same type for someone, lest you succumb to this dreaded disease. I've gotten some pretty bad gifts based on my perceived love of the concept of "video games", gifts I was unable to return, leaving either one or both parties unsatisfied.
This time of year, it's easy to get caught up in searching for "the perfect gift". Will mum like the cashmere scarf in robin's egg blue or canary yellow? Or does she already have too many scarves as it is? Your quest isn't just about buying stuff; it's about feeling satisfied with what you've given everyone without breaking the bank.
A study researching the errors involved in gift-giving show givers are more focused on the initial excitement of a given gift, whereas recipients are focused on a gift's practicality through the length of their ownership. While gift givers value aspects like desirability and the element of surprise, recipients care more about a gift's versatility, and whether or not the gift was desired at all. That Jack Skellington poster you got on Halloween sure is cool, but don't expect your recipient to hang it up in their living room when it's the middle of July.
Verdict: Gift Cards for Your Fake Friends, Better Gift Cards for Your Real Friends
In the end, snagging a gift card for someone lets them get what they want, and that's a gift everyone can appreciate. If you really want to make an impression, just throw some more cash on it, my friend. Actual presents, while emotionally touching and great for strengthening personal relationships, are an exercise in risk-reward analysis, an exercise you should avoid when human emotion is involved.