Why our gift-wrapping culture needs to evolve

I counted five layers of wrapping between my gift and its intended recipient. Surely that is too much, asks Justin Thomas?

Fifty millilitres of perfume rests inside a piece of an elegantly engineered glassware. This ornate bottle, in turn, sits within an equally elegant cardboard box. This box is wrapped in a thin layer of transparent plastic film and sealed with a holographic sticker to imply authenticity. “Would you like it gift-wrapped?”, asks the eager salesperson. Now another layer of glossy paper, complexity and ribbons is added. Finally, the whole thing is dropped into a cardboard gift bag, bearing the shop’s prestigious branding. I count four layers between the gift and the recipient; it could be five.

Why do we go to such lengths? Surely it’s the gift, if not the thought, that counts. It turns out, however, that we appear to appreciate gifts more if they have been gift-wrapped. The more elaborate the wrapping, the more we like the gift.

We can find hard evidence for our love of gift-wrapping and elegant packaging in a series of studies published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in the early 1990s. These studies explored people’s evaluations of gifts with and without gift-wrap. Gift-wrapped presents were, on average, always rated more highly than their non-wrapped counterparts. This preference was true even when the gift-wrapping was pretty basic, that is, no bows or ribbons.

The only exception to this consistent finding was when participants were asked to rate gifts that were intended for other people. If the gift was for another person, then its evaluation didn’t differ whether it was gift-wrapped or not. Gift-wrapping makes gifts nicer, but only if those items are intended for us.

The author of these studies, Dr Daniel Howard, professor of marketing at the Cox School of Business in Texas, suggests that gift-wrap derives its power from its positive associations with past happy events. Parcels with ribbons and boxes covered with decorative paper have become inextricably connected to birthdays and other joyous cultural and religious festivals such as Eid and Christmas. This association gives gift-wrap the power to trigger a happy mood. A state of mind that positively biases our attitudes, making the mediocre remarkable and the just right seem outstanding.

A complementary explanation is that, on some level, what we also appreciate is the extra effort that it takes to package and gift-wrap items so elaborately. If people take the additional time to make the presentation pretty, it means they care. Even waiting the extra five minutes, while the salesperson expertly wraps the gift on the customer’s behalf, still signifies extra effort on the part of the gift giver.

The downside of our love of beautiful packaging and decorous gift-wrap, however, is that it has an adverse impact on the environment. According to The Guardian, the United Kingdom alone consumes 8,000 tonnes of wrapping paper a year. Using the most conservative estimates, it takes approximately 12 trees to produce one tonne of paper; that’s about 96,000 trees in gift-wrap each year for the UK alone.

Gift-wrapping is part of our gift-giving culture that needs to evolve. Perhaps during festive periods, we could launch highly visible campaigns urging the disposal of gift-wrap and product packaging within easily accessible recycling bins. Similarly, shops that offer gift-wrapping could be strongly encouraged to use only recycled paper. Beyond consumer and retailer efforts, producers also need to rethink their packaging – less is best. I would like to see all perfume bottles manufactured so as to be refillable, as they once were and still are in the more traditional Arabian perfume shops.

Fifty millilitres of perfume rests inside a piece of elegantly engineered glassware, a vessel that has been in the family for decades. This ornate bottle, in turn, sits within an equally elegant wooden box, of similar age and provenance. “Would you like it gift-wrapped?”, asks the eager salesperson. “The paper is, of course, 100 per cent recycled,” he adds.​

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National