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business school research

Contributing to a couple’s honeymoon might be a better wedding gift than pots and pans.Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Globe's monthly roundup of research from business schools.

Cindy Chan has some valuable advice for last-minute holiday shoppers still looking for that perfect gift.

Forget about socks, ties and sweaters. To make your friend, spouse or family member feel closer to you, buy them an experience, whether that's a safari adventure, a rock concert, salsa-dancing lessons or a deep-tissue massage.

You don't even have to share the experience to make it special.

"Your recipient might enjoy a peaceful afternoon at the spa alone. If you're not a sports fan, you could give a pair of tickets to a [Toronto Blue] Jays game and suggest that your recipient bring a fellow Jays fan to make the experience even more fun and exciting," says Dr. Chan, an assistant professor and expert on consumer relationships at the University of Toronto Scarborough's department of management and the Rotman School of Management, in an e-mail.

Dr. Chan's comments follow the publication of her latest research in the Journal of Consumer Research. Her study, which explores the impact of experiential gifts on personal connection versus material gifts, was co-authored by Cassie Mogilner of UCLA Anderson School of Management.

Through a series of experiments, the researchers found the power of experiential gifts over material possessions lies in the ability to evoke strong emotions.

Yet, people often don't immediately consider experiences when deciding on what to give. A survey conducted by the research team found 78 per cent of respondents reported having most recently given a material gift.

The research suggests there is more than one way to evaluate what constitutes a great gift.

"Gift givers are often focused on how much recipients will like a gift, neglecting a fundamental objective in gift giving – to foster the relationship between the gift giver and recipient," says Dr. Chan.

Marketers, too, can learn from the findings, especially those in the travel or entertainment industries. It would be to their advantage to package experiential gifts in a way that allows consumers more flexibility for when and how to redeem them.

Further, says Dr. Chan, "marketers could explore ways to make it easier for recipients to request experiential gifts, such as how some wedding registries now allow couples to register for experiences [for example, a scuba diving lesson or nice dinner] on their honeymoon."

Death and shopping have more in common than you might think

In a season often marked by lavish purchases and gifts given and received, new research from marketing experts Michel Laroche of Concordia University and Marcelo Nepomuceno of HEC Montréal asks some timely questions around the reasoning behind our consumer behaviour.

Specifically, the two academics pooled their expertise in mortality salience (Dr. Laroche) and anticonsumerism (Dr. Nepomuceno) to connect our thoughts about death with our impulse to buy.

"Note that we are constantly reminded of our own mortality," Dr. Laroche says of the study's relevance. "Reports of deaths in TV news programs are frequent. We are bombarded with news of plane crashes, terrorist attacks, fatal car accidents, deadly fires and so on. Therefore, consumers might be frequently influenced by such situational variables."

In previous research, the authors found that materialistic people are likely to shop more after thinking about death because they use consumption to feel better about themselves.

Those studies determined that death thoughts lead individuals to become greater defenders of worldviews that are important to them. That explains, for instance, why so-called "materialists" become more inclined to consume after thinking about death.

Dr. Laroche, the Royal Bank distinguished professor of marketing at Concordia's John Molson School of Business, and Dr. Nepomuceno, an assistant professor of marketing at HEC, were curious to know what would happen to people who voluntarily resist consumerism – anticonsumers – when faced with similar thoughts around mortality.

Would they become more inclined to resist consumption even further?

"We believed that refusing to consume when being financially capable was the result of a key worldview," says Dr. Laroche.

Surprisingly, what they found through a series of experiments was that anticonsumers were not influenced by thoughts of death – a conclusion that indicates a more relaxed view toward consumption.

"For them, not consuming does not really define them," says Dr. Laroche.

The authors say the findings reinforce research that points to the high psychological cost of materialism.

"There is extensive literature demonstrating the benefits of resisting consumption," says Dr. Laroche. "Anticonsumers tend to experience more well being, they tend to contract smaller financial debts and they tend to find more positive meaning in life by simply ignoring the ethos of working to consume."

The study was published in The Journal of Consumer Research.

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