• In 2021, Millennials most appreciate “experiences” as a gift.
  • Overall, tech trumps all other gift preferences.
  • Approx. 72% of survey respondents say that their favorite gift was a total surprise.
  • Clothing and plants spark the least appreciation, with candy and cosmetics also among the biggest gift flops.

The holiday season is the most intense gift-giving time of the year – and finding enjoyable gifts for everyone, from family and friends to roommates and coworkers, is not an easy task. What makes things easier, however, is knowing what people really want and appreciate – in other words, going straight to true and tested gift ideas, things that will win both the recipient’s heart and some extra kudos for you for your thoughtfulness.

But what are those fool-proof gift ideas? We wanted to see first-hand what types of gifts are appreciated by Americans today, so we launched a survey to find out. By looking at nearly 9,200 responses, we discovered not only the hottest types of gifts, but also how people’s expectations align with what they are actually getting, and which occasions create a context for the most spectacular presents.

Expectations vs. reality: Americans wish for new homes, but they mostly receive clothing and tech

As the holiday season is a time for introspection and setting up expectations, we wanted to see what people most wish for. We specifically used an open-ended question first to allow us to capture the most authentic gift possibilities.

As it turns out, when it comes to what people most desire, the thing that topped all other preferences was … a new home – which would make a great gift, indeed, by all accounts! With a red-hot real estate market, and freshly emerging from a pandemic that kept us indoors for months last year, it’s no wonder that many Americans are dreaming about better housing –  a bit more room inside, perhaps amped up by some nice backyard space in a good neighborhood would most likely lift the spirits of many.

A few lucky ones might get the house, but the vast majority don’t. So what are we getting instead? Clothes and accessories, tech, jewelry and cash are some of the most frequent types of gifts that are actually being offered. Less grand than a home, but highly appreciated, nonetheless.

America’s gifting habits make an impression: 78% of people enjoy what they receive

Creating positive vibes through gifting is most appreciated in the aftermath of the pandemic with most Americans satisfied with the gifts they get – on a scale from 1 (least satisfied) to 5 (most satisfied), about 78% of the survey respondents declared themselves as delighted with the gifts they receive.

However, the degree of satisfaction varies among different categories of people. Women are usually more pleased with their gifts than men are (84% vs. 79%). Millennials and baby boomers are happy-go-lucky generations, at least when it comes to gifts: 85% of them were completely happy with their gifts, followed closely by Gen Xers.

Birthdays are when most people receive the best gifts, followed by the holiday season and Valentine’s Day.

Keep it cool: surprises make the best gifts

Although you might be tempted to ask your family and friends what they’d like for the next celebratory occasion, keeping it a surprise is the way to go – almost three quarters of all the survey respondents said that the best gift they received was also a total surprise.


Women were also more likely to get amazing surprise gifts – 79% of them said the best gift they got was a surprise, compared to 69% of the men. By age group, Gen Xers get the best surprise gifts, followed by baby boomers.

Most popular gifts today: It’s all about tech

Talking about a fool-proof gift that transcends age groups and demographics, that would be tech. Gadgets rank first in people’s preferences and would make the recipients happy any day – if money is no object, that is. New phones – the iPhone 13 and Apple Watch 7 are now out for grabs – gaming consoles like Nintendo Switch, noise-cancelling headphones and Air Pods are some of the most popular tech gifts that would create a memorable unboxing experience.

Jewelry, clothes and accessories, experiences, and household items also make it to the list of most expected gifts this year. Cliché or not, ladies stick with their love for jewelry and clothes, which are even ahead of tech for many.

The pandemic made millennials appreciate experiences even more, but pushed Gen Zers further into technology

After being cooped up inside our homes for months during the pandemic, it’s perhaps less of a surprise that we all want more experiences – and millennials are craving social interaction and exploration a lot more than other generations, ranking “experiences” as their favorite type of gift. However, the youngest generation, Gen Zers, a.k.a. the digital natives, were drawn even further into their love for technology, and declared tech as their favorite type of gift.

Gen Xers, on the other hand, are favoring jewelry, followed by experiences. Baby boomers seem to be the most fashion-forward of them all, ranking clothes and accessories as their preferred gifts.

What is the most popular gift to give at Christmas?

Playing Santa is no easy job. It’s a time for joy alright but there can be plenty of pressure when you realize you have to fill the socks of the young family members, and please the older ones plus a couple of friends and co-workers as well. You can brush some of that pressure off if you go for some fail-safe gifts that most people love. Handmade or antique jewelry, designer bags and shoes and a trip to Florida will most likely do the trick for the women in the family.

Men might fancy vinyl records, that new Apple Watch Series 7 that was launched or, why not, a massaging recliner or maybe a telescope. And for grandma, that’s easy: some handmade cards or pictures will put a smile on her face anytime.

Gift flops: Ugly sweaters and unfashionable purses head the list of bad gifts

But then there’s the other side of the coin. Clothing and accessories are a “hit or miss” type of present, and it’s important to really know a person’s style before buying fashion items for them. When asked about the least favorite gifts, clothes and accessories ranked first, with Gen Xers the least impressed with this choice of a gift.

Household items can be contentious gifts also, with many people disliking the lamps, vases, or house plants they got – totally understandable, as plants make lousy gifts for those who lack a green thumb. Getting a coffee maker or an air fryer sounds great for many. However, not everyone drinks coffee or cooks, so you should know a person’s habits before offering these types of gifts.

Interestingly enough, candy and desserts are among the top 3 gift flops, with people complaining about dollar store candy and mediocre cake.

Unique gifts are a game of love and hate

Unique gifts are a great idea – in theory. They can trigger utter appreciation or go straight to the “ugliest presents” pile. Homemade gifts seem to be scoring high on the appreciation scale of our survey respondents – grandkids’ drawings, needlepoint art made by a friend, or a homemade necklace were among the favorite gifts that some of the respondents got last year. A surprise birthday parade can even be organized, taking the form of driving past in cars with balloons and cheers, and doing the trick as well as an impromptu dinner party.

The other end of the spectrum is filled with strange choices and unpleasant gifts — a joke card from a mother-in-law made for one awkward family celebration. Cheap nail polish and snakeskin shoes, as well as lamps and house slippers, were other underwhelming gifts listed by survey respondents. Others complained about getting maple cookies or no-name chocolate that tasted bad – and even hand sanitizer.

Most Americans plan to enjoy their gifts

About 77% of the survey respondents said they are using and enjoying the items they receive as gifts, with women more likely to do so than men. Gen Xers are the most easily satisfied, with 90% of them saying they use their gifts, followed by baby boomers.

The gifts that keep on giving – about 9% of Americans prefer to put their gifts in storage, while others plan to regift or donate

Almost 9% of the recipients are planning to put their gifts in self storage for further use. Donating or selling are other ways to deal with gifts. The oldest generation is the most generous, with 12% of them saying they donate some of their gifts, followed by millennials.

Gift satisfaction with a twist: we’re giving better gifts than we’re receiving

About 38% of all the gift givers consider that the gifts they offered are better than the ones they received – and that affirmation is truer for men than for women. Among different age groups, Gen Zers are the most confident that they offer great gifts, followed by millennials.

Offering better gifts is generally a reason for pride and satisfaction for the survey respondents. Gen Xers are the most likely to feel satisfied when offering better gifts than the ones they received (30% of them), while Gen Zers and Millennials feel rather proud (35% of both age groups).

Gift appreciation by state: Clothes & accessories, tech, and cash are Californians’ favorite gifts

Clothes and accessories, and tech, are the gifts most appreciated by Californians, but they also love to receive cash, household items, jewelry and experiences. Texans and Floridians, on the other hand, seem to be the most attracted by tech.

New Yorkers are really into experiences – almost 23% of the state’s survey respondents said that their favorite gift last year was an experience, followed by jewelry and tech. Floridians are more satisfied with the gifts they receive compared to Californians, Texans or New Yorkers.

Tech, jewelry and apparel are some of the hottest gifts right now, but preferences, and the degree of the recipients’ satisfaction, vary depending on demographics. Millennials, for example, prefer experiences above any other types of gifts, and they are also the most satisfied with what they are getting – alongside women, irrespective of the age group they belong to.

What the experts are saying

Rebecca Walker Reczek, Professor of Marketing, Ohio State University, Fisher College of Business

Do you think Americans’ gifting preferences and habits have changed recently?

The pandemic has been a long and difficult time for most of us. I think there is a strong desire for this year’s holiday season to be more “normal” than last year’s holidays. Along with that comes a desire to really make the holidays special, so I think a lot of consumers are looking for gifts that they hope will bring more joy into their loved ones lives. I think everyone could use more joy right now really, so a lot of shoppers may also be looking for some self-gifts to go along with the presents they’re buying for others.

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Do you think gifting ambitions this year’s holiday season could be affected by stockouts and shipping delays?

Unfortunately, yes. Many businesses are encouraging shoppers to buy early, and many shoppers are listening, but there are still likely to be people who aren’t able to get that “perfect” gift because by the time they are ready to shop it’s out of stock or not shipping until after the holidays. So, we may see shoppers having to come up with a “Plan B,” which may end up being either a different gift or choosing a gift card so the person the gift is intended for can buy it later once it’s back in stock.

What are the main effects of gift giving, from a social and psychological point of view?

 We give gifts to show others that we care about them and how important they are to us. For people that are close to us, we often spend significant time and effort to give them a gift that shows that we really know them and know what they like and what they value. It’s a way to signal and maintain the closeness of that relationship. What’s important to remember is that a gift that shows that kind of closeness doesn’t have to be something that’s very expensive. It really is the thought behind the gift that matters most.

Deborah Brosdahl, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina, College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management

Do you think Americans’ gifting preferences and habits have changed recently?

American’s gifting preferences and habits have definitely changed because of the perfect storm of supply chain issues, the COVID pandemic, and many people not working or in the process of looking for different jobs (the big resignation), and concerns about the environment.

First of all, I think that many shoppers are giving experiences rather than products, something like a massage or movie tickets rather than another scented candle. I also think that shoppers are being more thoughtful with their gifts and oftentimes making their gifts unique to the person. Giving gifts from the kitchen like a favorite barbeque rub or a plate of cookies are gifts that are less expensive, more meaningful, and can be adapted in different ways to match the recipient.

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But at the same time, because families may not have been able to get together the past two years, the anticipation of the upcoming Christmas being spent with family members after this long absence may make some go overboard on their spending.

Do you think gifting ambitions this year’s holiday season could be affected by stockouts and shipping delays?

Yes, stockouts and shipping delays are going to be issues that many shoppers will face. We are already hearing of electronic products like certain TVs and computers, etc. that are on backorder and consumers buying them without having them in hand immediately. This tends to make shoppers less than happy because they want something physical to wrap and put under the tree and there is no guarantee they will receive the goods they purchased in time for Christmas. This has caused many to go directly to gift certificates and let the receiver deal with picking what they want.

Gifting this year is going to be more difficult than in year’s past. Hearing about the supply chain issues being a problem back in October, many have started Christmas shopping early, even without the abundance of sales often associated with the time period. Overall, there are also going to be less sales as retailers choose to cut back on sales to increase their bottom line. Sales for Black Friday were sluggish and are down from the sales of last year.

What are the main effects of gift giving, from a social and psychological point of view?

For many, gift giving is a way to see what people think about others, about the relationship between the giver and the receiver, and what they value and enjoy. But gift giving often goes beyond this. Giving a gift means that the giver has (usually) taken the time to think about what the receiver may like and as such the appreciation the receiver may have toward the giver for the value of their time and their money can be equated with generosity.

So, if you are the gift giver, to be thought of by the receiver as being generous with your time, your thoughts, your money, or perhaps all of these resources, is something that makes you feel good about yourself and good about the receiver because the receiver appreciated and/or acknowledged the thought, time and financial resources you spent on making sure the gift was appreciated.

Recent research has found that one of the best ways for a gift-giver to improve their relationship with the receiver, is to give them an experience, rather than a material gift. This is not hard to understand because when a giver and receiver experience an activity or some other form of experiential gift with each other, the emotions that are evoked, such as pleasure, thankfulness, joy, fun, etc., are multi-layered and can improve the relationship between the giver and the receiver.

Methodology

This analysis was done by STORAGECafé, an online platform that provides storage unit listings across the nation.

The survey was conducted on an online real estate platform rentcafe.com, for a period of one month.

The sampling was designed as a non-probability sample, and the platform’s active users voluntarily engaged in taking the survey. About 4,400 valid questionnaire results were interpreted for this study.

Fair Use and Distribution

This study serves as a resource for the general public on issues of common interest and should not be regarded as investment advice. The data is true to the best of our knowledge but may change if amendments to it are made. We agree to the distribution of this content but we do require a mention in return for attribution purposes.

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Author

Maria Gatea is a creative writer for StorageCafe and RentCafe with a background in Journalism and Communication. After covering business and finance-related topics as a freelance writer for 15 years, she is now focusing on researching and writing about the real estate industry. You may contact Maria via email.

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