Harvey Nichols is right: we're not qualified to choose presents

Sarah Coles
A woman opening Christmas presents to discover she got an apron and some underwear.
A woman opening Christmas presents to discover she got an apron and some underwear.

Harvey Nichols ruffled some feathers earlier this month when it came up with a genius idea: the 'Could I be any clearer?' greetings card. The idea is that you can browse the store's website, select exactly the gift you want, and then create an e-card to send to a loved one to let them know what you want for Christmas. The outcry was immediate and vociferous: AOL journalist Ruth Jackson claimed it was "a truly hideous notion that stamps a huge smelly foot on the joy of Christmas." But she's wrong.

The Harvey Nichols cards don't pussyfoot around. Among the options available are one saying "Christmas Time will be spent in the doghouse if you don't get me (add the item of your choice)" or "Tidings of Joy are no good to me. What I want is (the item you have chosen)."

The naysayers were quick to denounce the idea. They made the point that Christmas is not about getting presents, it's about buying your friends and family something thoughtful, which demonstrates how well you know them and how much you appreciate them. They add that by leaving it to your loved ones to decide what to buy means they can choose for themselves what they can afford to spend.

However, they are missing the point. In fact they are missing three vital points.
Waste of money

Traditional gift giving is always a waste of money. Yes always. An experiment in 1993 by economist Joel Waldfogel asked 86 undergraduate students to put a value on the Christmas gifts they received i.e. to say what they would have spent on them themselves. They had received around $440 worth of gifts, but would have paid $310 for them. That's a massive and immediate loss in value.

To add insult to injury, he then asked more students to identify the cash sum they would have been willing to receive as an alternative to the presents. The students in the second experiment received $510 worth of gifts, but would have been happy with $460 in cash. He concluded that between 10% and 33% of everything you spend at Christmas is immediately wasted when you give gifts.

It means that in order to give a £20 present that's worth as much to the recipient as £20 in cash, you have to be exceptionally good at buying gifts - or the person concerns needs to have sent you a card telling you exactly what to buy.

Poor buying

The second major problem with buying gifts is that the sentimentalists who will tell you that these cards are destroying the art of gift giving are assuming that everyone is good at it. We have all spent those Christmases when the main entertainment has been a tense stand-off between a couple flinging comments at one another such as: "What on earth made you think I was a size 14?" or "What do you mean you thought it would be practical?" All these cards destroy is the potential for a massive family row.


Finally, anyone who argues that telling people what you want is encouraging overspending, is clearly a Christmas shopping genius. For most of us, if we are left to buy what we want, we end up spotting something that's perfect, but too expensive, and we are tempted to bust the budget immediately.

Likewise, ten minutes before the shops shut on Christmas Eve, we're likely to end up spending well over the odds, just so that our brother-in-law has something to open in the morning.

These cards enable you to make a sensible judgment about the kind of budget your friends and family are working to (based on presents they have bought in the past). Then you can select something that you really want, which falls into their price bracket. Rather than encouraging overspending, in one simple move they can put an end to it.

Obviously this isn't going to work for everyone. You're going to have to decide for yourself whether each of your loved ones will take these cards in the lighthearted spirit in which they are intended. If you send them to everyone, there's a fairly high likelihood that Great Aunt Petunia is going to be mortally offended when she discovers you don't want another tin of shortbread biscuits this year.

But what do you think? Will you be specific this year, or is it me who is missing the point?

Christmas shopping on AOL

Fake designer candles pose fire risk

Cheapest countries for Christmas shopping

Iceland's £5 lobsters are selling out

The Worst Christmas Gifts Ever
The Worst Christmas Gifts Ever