Spirit of the (cyber)season

Does the embrace of online shopping lessen the meaning of the holiday season?

The essence of gift-giving is not just the gift itself but also the effort that goes into it. Few of us have the time or skill to make a gift from scratch, but we used to at least spend days finding just the right token of our affection.

Not long ago, holiday shopping entailed traipsing from one store to another with our list of loved ones. Ducking crowds, sorting through items, standing in line at cash registers. And then once we found the gifts, we had to lug them home, find the right wrapping paper and a suitable ribbon. And then there was the whole process of putting the wrapped gift into the mail or even delivering it in person. The entire enterprise required lots of time. Lots of effort and thought. It was hard work. That's what gift giving was all about.

But online shopping is displacing all of this. Minimum effort is the selling point for online retailers who now ask little of the giver beyond naming a price range, typing in an address, and then offering a credit card. Presto, it's done. Someone I know boasts she did all her Christmas shopping online in less than an hour.   
But wait. If thoughtfulness and effort are a big part of the value of a holiday gift, then almost-effortless holiday shopping contradicts the whole meaning and spirit of the exchange. Packages zip directly from the gift-giver's point and click, to computerized warehouses, to recipients -- without any evidence of human intervention let alone personal effort.

I've already received two holiday gifts whose givers weren't even identified, and another from someone whose name appears on an impersonal print-out that looks like a laundry ticket.  

Now call me old-fashioned, but I think we're losing something here. The thought behind the gift is as important as the thing being given. But we've automated and depersonalized gift-giving to the point where what's being given is just a thing without much of a thought.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.
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Right on, Tammy B. Given how the world still works, this commentary basically longs for the era when women had to devote even MORE time than they do now to making a perfect holiday for their families.

I agree that the thought behind the gift is as important as the thing being given. I think the bigger problem is that a lot of people look on gift giving as an obligation rather than as a means to show that you care about a person.
Online shopping is a tool and can either be used to find gifts in a thoughtful manner or as a way to get through the gift giving process as quickly as possible. That is up to the attitude of the gift giver.
As to myself, I think I must be a bit of an aberration, I buy gifts early in the year when I find something appropriate; I will buy online but I always ship to to myself so I can control when and how the gift is delivered; and I always wrap all my gifts as I enjoy the process.

How does sending a gift directly to the recipient rather than spending time in a post office mean that we're inconsiderate? Convenience does not negate thoughtfulness.

Most of us do a lot more work ourselves, because of computers...fewer secretaries and the like. That leaves us with less time, especially less shopping time.

I often look back at my childhood and remember the presents my mom would wrap with pretty bows and ribbons and decorations. I don't know how she found the time, except that she didn't have a computer to waste countless hours on. That must be it. But! with the society we have today, online shopping is a gift in itself!


Fallacious reasoning. The thought behind the gift Is important. But the amount of time and effort expended does not have a direct relationship to the thought expended.

Hell yes, Mr. Reich. Guess what, I heard your commentary as I was driving back from the Post Office, having just deposited five different-sized packages of dates and citrus. I do the shipping at Flying Disc Ranch, in Southern California. We mainly sell our fruit at California farmers markets, yet we have a website - and we do not take web orders. No. We do not accept phone or email orders. We've never taken credit cards. Customers print up our order form, hand-write their order, arrange an envelope, stamp, and a check, and send in their orders to us... I, in turn, pick up their orders at the Post Office and make a project out of fulfilling their wishes: I must take all varieties of the dates out of the cooler into the packing shed (approximately 10 boxes weighing 12 lbs. each), harvest the citrus (walk out into the field for the perfect specimens), make date boxes (fold them up), write the names of the dates onto paper bags, inspect and weigh the dates, place them in the bags, then into their date palm-printed boxes, and finally into the correct flat-rate Post Office box, write a message or include a card if someone has sent one along, occasionally gift wrap the boxes, print up a shipping label and affix to box, then bring it to the Post Office a mile down the road. It's fun. Not! It can be A LOT of work, for both myself and our dear customers. Sometimes I used to think it was torture; that the packing shed was my personal prison... I take a lot of time and effort to do it well, and that takes.... time. Each order is entirely unique, like a snowflake. I give consideration and so much compassion for these individuals who have taken the time to go through unusual effort to place an order, for themselves or their loved ones. I'd love them just for that, and we have a legion of repeat customers, whom I enjoy getting to know through their order form notes, email questions, and phone calls. So there. Take that - VISA and Mastercard. Try competing with a small permaculture ranch, large and impersonal online companies! They can't touch this. We'd never let them. It would be silly. We are completely inefficient, and that's why our fruit tastes so good. Thank you for recognizing, Mr. Reich, that the effort and love counts. We love to do it and wouldn't have it any other way... plus, God knows if we automated things... I would never leave the packing shed! We don't want more mail order than we can handle. Small is beautiful. Thanks yo and stay tuned for more. I say, shop at the farmers market for everything you possibly can... there are so many great gifts to share there... learn how to make things... we can ALL do it, if we go slow and think about people throughout the year. Trial and success... Merry Christmas.

I usually find Mr Reich's commentaries to be spot on, but not this one! The vast majority of my family live out of town and that makes online shopping with shipping included a big bonus. I have spent countless hours "shopping" online to find the perfect gifts for my children, grandchildren and others. My husband and I own 3 group homes for medically fragile children so I have another 18 kids to shop for at Christmas. This is 2012 and unfortunately, most of us have such harried lives and family spread out everywhere we could not possibly shop at a brick and mortar store then wrap and mail all of our gifts.

If Mr. Reich has such fond memories of holiday shopping all I can say is: I'm guessing his wife did most of it.

Reich's view is completely backwards. If I had to shop at a physical store, given time and selection constraints, I would make an unthoughtful choice solely for my convenience and checking the box. But with online shopping, I've done meaningful research and made rational economic decisions after cost comparisons. Information and choices empower one to make a deeply personal and meaningful gift choice. Example? My 8 year old son wants nice sheets for his bed like mine. When I told him they had been discontinued in the twin size, he said that Santa would bring them if I couldn't. With that gauntlet thrown, I found the discontinued sheets on eBay and, as much as I love Santa and his generosity, he can bring the toys. I will give the longed for and comfortable gift --that could only be had on the Internet and in no physical store. Reich is wrong.


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