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Excerpt from Shoptimism

Consumer researcher Russell Belk says that a perfect gift satisfies six criteria.

Consumer researcher Russell Belk says that a quintessential gift satisfies six criteria.

1. The perfect gift requires us to make an “extraordinary sacrifice.”

By “sacrifice,” Belk doesn’t mean that we need to pawn our departed mother’s handmade quilts to help pay for the $7,000 doghouse with an Italian leather armchair. (Neiman Marcus offered one in a recent Christmas gift catalog). “Sacrifice” needn’t call for financial sacrifice. In [my friend, the perfect gift giver] Lisa’s case, sacrifice comes when she puts aside a challenging section of the novel she’s writing to make time to explore an antiques barn, where she once found a 1940s telephone for her daughter, a thoroughly modern adolescent who finds movies and Broadway musicals of that period irresistible.

2. The giver of a perfect gift wishes “solely to please the recipient.”

The perfect gift isn’t one that begs for reciprocation or proclaims that you’re one hell of a big-time spender. The perfect gift, Belk says, is about the recipient, not about you. Lisa gets that. One year she came upon a mourning locket offered on eBay. There was an “H” engraved on it. Lisa’s stepmother’s late beloved dog was named Harry. Lisa bought the piece, placed a picture of Harry inside, and gave it to her stepmother on Christmas morning.

3. The perfect gift is “a luxury.”

By “luxury,” Belk doesn’t mean that the perfect gift need be spattered with VLs or interlocking Cs. In this context a luxury is anything that isn’t strictly a necessity. To buy and give someone a pair of underwear or a mop and bucket is thoughtful if the recipient’s in need of them. But gifts such as these don’t exactly communicate that the recipient is in some way extraordinary. Lisa needs no remedial training on this point.

When her husband, Stephen, was a kid, he loved a book called Little Lefty. It’s author was Matt Christopher, and it was one of those corny, Hortatio-Alger-in-spikes tales that boys love—or used to, before PlayStations came along. Lisa says that Stephen would often reminisce about Little Lefty, “the way an immigrant talks about the Old Country.” One year she hunted down a copy of the book (I just saw one online for $1.99) and gave it to Stephen on his birthday. “He not only wept when he opened the package,” Lisa tells me, “but he reread it right away, and somehow didn’t find it lacking.”

4. The perfect gift is appropriate to the recipient.

All of Lisa’s above-cited gifts qualify as appropriate and then some. As was the canvas tote she once bought for her friend Cathy. On the side were the words “It Is What It Is,” a phrase that Cathy happens to use inveterately. What can be more appropriate that letting someone know you actually listen to what they say, right down to their asides and throwaway lines?

5. The perfect gift is “surprising.”

If surprise weren’t universally appreciated, Belk says, gift wrap would never have come into being. Surprise is why we love getting presents on days that aren’t birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, Mother’s or Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Grandparents’ Day or any of the other Sell Side-manufactured giving days. Last year Lisa’s daughter Elizabeth performed in a school production of The Sound of Music. While such an occasion doesn’t require a gift, many of us buy unsurprising bouquets for our pint-sized leading ladies and would-be prima ballerinas. Lisa didn’t spring for a bunch of carnations; she bought Elizabeth a pair of glove forms. Why? “So I could give her a big hand.”

6. The perfect gift is one that the recipient desires.

Belk says that we don’t have to jump through hoops to give a perfect gift. Santa didn’t get to be Santa by ripping children’s wish lists into shreds. The words “It’s just what I always wanted!” are confirmation that you’ve bagged a perfect gift. For Lisa’s thirteen-year-old son, Jonny, for whom “it’s all technology, all the time,” Lisa says, a trip to the Apple Store or Best Buy involves a double-barreled reward. “Virtually any object or piece of software we take home will delight him, and since I share his addiction to all that stuff, we can browse together, while saying, sometimes in the same breath: ‘Like, how cool is that?’ ”

Excerpted from Shoptimism: Why The American Consumer Will Keep On Buying No Matter What by Lee Eisenberg. Copyright © 2009 by Lee Eisenberg. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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