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Disappointing gifts? How to get what you want and be a better gift-giver

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Did Santa bring what you asked for? Or did your partner fail to read your mind again this year?

There are many reasons people don't find what they want in their stockings, but it doesn't have to be that way. Just because gift-giving can't be outsourced to the omniscient man in the red suit, doesn't mean you're stuck waiting in customer service lines rather than enjoying Christmas morning with eggnog and your new favorite thing.

Because gifts can say so much, both about the giver and the recipient, it's important to get it right. So whether you didn't find the perfect gift or didn't receive it, improve your chances next year with these tips from scientists who have made a study of getting just what you want.

How 'picky' recipients win or lose

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A survey of Black Friday shoppers from 2013 found that 39 percent were looking for a gift for a "picky" person. Penn State reseacher Andong Cheng said this leads to shoppers being less motivated and more likely to go for easy, generic gifts - or nothing at all! - for these recipients. However, there is one way that being picky can work in your favor: Be clear about what you want. Specific requests are more likely to be fulfilled than vague suggestions.

Gift cards: Too convenient or the perfect present?

As difficult as it can be to find a thoughtful present, giving a gift card can feel like you didn't try at all. But if you do go that route, whether out of frustration or desperation, researchers say you shouldn't feel like you phoned in your holiday duties.

"While gift cards technically could be used to buy mundane things like textbooks or paper towels, we find that this feels like a misuse of the card," explains Columbia University fellow Chelsea Helion, who has made a study of gift cards. "When paying with a gift card, people forgo buying everyday items in favor of buying indulgent items."

The cards are seen as a treat, not just part of the weekly budget. "We find that this is because individuals experience less guilt when paying with a gift card, compared to credit cards or cash," Helion says.

Don't personalize gifts

"Givers tend to focus on what recipients are like, rather than what they would like," says Mary Steffel, assistand professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati. This translates into a gift that is personalized – you obviously know the recipient – but not versatile. Maybe they're trying to stop drinking, so a nice bottle of wine can become a temptation to give up that resolution rather than a thoughtful gesture. Or maybe they already have too many of an item because friends know that he or she has a particular hobby or interest. So, in terms of a gift card, don't buy one to a specific retailer, but one that can be used at any store in a mall or a website with a large selection of items, like Amazon.

Get a stronger relationship in return

Want to give a gift that will get you closer to the recipient? Forgo the wrapping paper and bow, and "give an experience," advises Cindy Chan, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto. In an experiment involving actual and hypothetical gift exchanges, they found that experiential gifts improved relationships more than material ones – even if the giver and recipient were not the ones to share the experience.

 
 
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