As society evolves, so too does the way in which we give and receive gifts. And in the last decade, the global proliferation of smartphones, tablets and computers has reshaped the way we search, purchase and receive gifts from friends, family members and loved ones.

Yiannis Faf, Co-founder, WhatWeWant

Perhaps the most evident example of this is the widespread use of online shopping as a means of locating, purchasing, and sending the ideal gift. A UK-based study last year revealed that half of UK adults prefer to shop online instead of physically visiting a shop. Moreover, with the festive season being one of the busiest periods in the retail calendar, approximately three quarters of consumers in the UK said they buy half of their Christmas presents online. 

While this trend is not new – indeed, online shopping has been around for a very long time – technology is changing the social dynamics of modern-day gift giving. How so you ask? I list some of the key trends below.

On the hunt for convenience

One of the key considerations for the modern consumer today is convenience, and over the years, online shopping businesses have developed intuitive and simple to use online platforms to make the process of buying something online almost seamless. 

Shoppers who dread crowded shopping centres and markets can breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the convenience of effortlessly browsing through online marketplaces instead. This is particularly helpful for those with a busy schedule and precious little time to spend on gift hunting; e-commerce platforms offer the opportunity to shop 24/7, and rewards consumers with a more enjoyable shopping experience. What’s more, it also allows consumers to compare prices between different retailers to scout out the best deals available.

The demand for convenience is something that we have seen personally at WhatWeWant, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that new tech innovations continue to offer limitless opportunities in this sphere.

The influence of social media

We cannot discuss the changing psychology of gift giving without first exploring the influence that social media has had. The ability for users to build up vast networks of connections in the form of friends, family and colleagues from all across the world has been a game-changer; by tearing down geographical barriers to gift giving, people are now able to send so-called “digital gifts” over long distances and at the very last minute.   

A paper published in 2018 by Facebook explored the increasingly common trend of digital gift exchanges – the act of sending someone a digital gift, such as an online gift card or voucher. What it uncovered was the social influence exerted by such platforms, and the impact is has on people’s behaviours. 


For example, the study found that when a person received a gift card on Facebook for their birthday (one which they could redeem for a variety of goods and services), they were then 56% more likely to also give an online gift through the platform. In essence, as more people opted to give their 

connections digital gifts, typically on their birthday, more Facebook users would then return the favour. 

This highlights gift giving’s progression into the digital space. Not only are more consumers now searching online for their presents, the process of actually sending a gift is happening digitally – with social networks driving this change in behaviour.

Of course, social media’s influence goes far beyond just facilitating gift giving. It has also impacted the way people discover different gifts and experiences. The social media effect is not difficult to discern; with connections increasingly sharing their products, gadgets and fun activities on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, users are constantly exposed to new ideas while scrolling through their social media feeds.


The rise of the experiential gift

As we’ve seen, technology has had a direct impact on the process of giving gift. But it has also opened up the doors to a new trend; namely, the experiential gift.

While vouchers and gift cards have been around for a long time, they have only recently risen in popularity as a consequence of new apps and online marketplaces. Today, platforms like Groupon and Treatwell are a first port of call for people who are keen to gift their loved ones with an experience that they think they’d enjoy, or one that they want to share with them. As opposed to traditional material gifts, experiential gifts can range from everything from a 3-course tasting menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant, to a ticket for a music festival.


During the 2018 festive season alone, the UK spent approximately £1.6 billion on experience gifts. The reason for this is clear: it’s now easier than ever before to find and purchase gifts, so people naturally seek out more unusual and quirky experiences that will inspire positive memories. Indeed, according to recent research by Barclaycard, half of its consumers (52%) would rather pay for a good experience than splash out on material possessions such as clothes and shoes.


There is an argument to be made that experiential gifts are more costly than their physical counterparts. At WhatWeWant, we realised that many people would rather have one special present (often an experience) rather than smaller material items, so we set about leveraging technology to find an answer. That’s why we created an app that enables people to come together and pool their funds in order to buy someone their dream gift. 


What are the long-term implications? 


With more and more people having access to the experience economy, what are the long-term implications of this trend?

For one, it drastically cuts down on unwanted gifts; those that are never used or immediately returned. The amount of money spent on unwanted presents does not bear thinking about – according to a recent survey, more than half of Brits receive at least one unwanted gift each Christmas. This suggest that we ought to think more carefully about the long-term value associated with presents, with experiential gifts neatly filling that gap. In addition to offering long-lasting memories and social experiences, this form of gift allows people to try something new.

In addition to cutting down wasteful spending on unwanted gifts, the rise of the experiential gift also removes the hassle of returning said items. Going back to the shop in which an item was originally bought to arrange an exchange, or if possible, a refund, is a chore that people begrudgingly put on their to-do list. Despite often being a good sentiment, getting an unwanted gift represents an inconvenience on many levels. Experience gifts, meanwhile, can be tailored to the individual interests of the recipient and are thus more likely to bring lasting enjoyment. 

The world of gift giving is certainly changing, but these changes are bringing with them convenience and value. In the future, we can expect to become even further entrenched in the digital landscape, with new apps and tech solutions coming onto the market to make the process of getting the perfect gift even simpler.


Written by Yiannis Faf, Co-founder, WhatWeWant