Yale School of Management

Center for Customer Insights

Advancing the frontiers of consumer understanding

The Perils of Wrapping Paper: Unwrapping Consumer Expectations

Most of us can relate to the feelings of excitement and anticipation that comes along with eying a beautifully wrapped gift with our name on it. Unfortunately, most of us can also relate to the disappointment of opening such a present only to discover socks, long underwear or even a fruitcake waiting inside.

Intuitively, it seems that receiving an unwanted gift that is attractively wrapped would be preferable to receiving the same gift unwrapped; at least with the pretty wrapping, something about the fruitcake transfer experience would be positive. However, new research from YCCI Fellows and Yale SOM Professors Ravi Dhar and Nathan Novemsky suggests that although people believe that gift wrapping always makes the gifting experience better, this belief may not be correct when it comes to undesirable gifts. Nice wrapping sets expectations that might make the disappointment of receiving a gift you don’t like worse.

Nice wrapping heightens expectations, making the disappointment of getting a gift you don’t like even worse

This research has a couple of implications when it comes to gift-giving (and gift receiving). The most obvious implication is that if you think you are giving a gift that might be disappointing to the recipient, don’t wrap it. Of course, very few people anticipate that they are giving a bad gift, so this advice is of limited use, although it does serve as a warning to retailers that offering free gift wrap may backfire. The more practical strategy is for the recipient: when receiving a nicely wrapped gift, take a moment to ask yourself (silently!) if you are anticipating a higher-quality gift just because of the trimmings. Dhar and Novemsky’s research shows that the simple act of asking this question helps you realize that your expectations matter, and could help you avoid setting yourself up for disappointment.

However, this research has takeaways well beyond the realm of gifts. The fact that providing a high-quality initial experience results in higher expectations for the subsequent experience (and greater propensity for disappointment if the second experience doesn’t match these heightened predictions) should give pause to marketers at customer-facing organizations who are contemplating adding nice little extras at the outset of a customer’s interaction with the organization.

Marketers: be careful about  raising expectations you can’t fulfill

For example, sprucing up the hotel lobby makes guests anticipate nicer rooms, a friendly store greeter means that a shopper will expect a smoother check-out process, and a free glass of champagne offered to diners before their meal means that they may judge their entrees against a higher standard. Be careful about raising expectations that you can’t fulfill: offering your customers a delightful experience is a great strategy…but only if you can follow it with another delightful experience.

Originally published December 21, 2012