The manner of giving matters more than what is given. --Pierre Corneille

Americans are about to enter the winter holiday season. Gift-giving defines some of the central themes of this annual period of festivals and celebrations. Through the power of search engines, social media discussions, and mobile devices, Americans have become accustomed to being able to search for--and successfully find--the most specific, personalized gifts for friends and loved ones. Anything from poetry-inscribed sculpture to steampunk lighting to monthly organic coffee subscriptions to crazy socks are only a few mouse clicks and shipping days away.

However, finding the perfect gift is only one part of the art of the present. Presents are exactly that--something we present. As Corneille and others have argued, the greater part of the art of the present is not the content itself, but its presentation. Good presentation cannot make up for a thoughtless present. Yet, the thoughtfulness of a good present can be easily lost through poor presentation.

Some cultural narratives of presentation are shared in a public way--consider the tradition of boxes wrapped in decorative paper under an indoor, ornamented fir tree practiced by lots of Americans. Other narratives develop personally between friends, family, and loved ones. For example, one of my aunts always includes seasonal confetti in her cards. I know to expect a cascade of glittering small balloons or hearts or four-leaf clover bits and pieces whenever I get a card from Aunt Jackie.

Presentation--and our public and private rituals of presentation--magnify the meaning of a gift. While presentation may seem like an afterthought, the seemingly extraneous papers, bows, notes, and envelopes serve an important function. Thoughtful presentation honors the actual content by highlighting the voluntary generosity that is the essence of a present--an object freely and joyfully given to another.

As more and more Americans shop online, the demand for personalized and creative presentation reiterates itself in new forms. Retailers in the online space need to recognize the importance not just of connecting consumers with the right present, but also providing robust options for presenting the gift. Likewise, in a rapidly changing marketing landscape, retailers need to connect with consumers not just while searching. With the rise of mobile devices and the convergence of online and offline spaces, retailers need to meet them while they browse the entire web--through display strategy--and while shopping in brick-and-mortar--via mobile advertising.

Creative solutions are springing up all over the web. Consider GroupCard -- a service that allows groups of people to sign a card and send it to someone digitally or to print the card. Gift certificates can also be attached, giving signers the option to contribute. These sorts of products point to the ever-accelerating convergence of online and offline spheres as well as bringing the power of new media technology to profoundly human situations--in this case, how to rally and communicate a message of support, condolence, or congratulations from a community to one of its members.

However, in an age when many of us live far from loved ones and in an economy that may make travel more expensive, the rituals around sent gifts--rather than those given face-to-face--also have great importance.

The option for free shipping catches the eye like few other calls to action. Americans have been demanding free with ever-increasing intensity over the past 7 years, something reflected in the sheer volume of search queries around this term we have seen on The trend has accelerated after the start of the recession in 2008--and will remain important for the foreseeable future.

Beyond free shipping, there is much an online retailer can consider for the holiday season. For example, when we send a gift via FedEx or USPS, it tends to arrive in a box indistinguishable from a non-gift box. We want to communicate as rapidly as possible to the receiver that this is, indeed, a present. Just as in face-to-face presentation, we want the present to say not just “I bought this for you,” but “I thoughtfully found this for you and am thinking of you.” If possible, as a retailer, be sure to distinguish yourself with options for gift wrapping interior boxes, inclusion of notes or cards with customizable message, and other possibilities.

As we move toward the start of the 2011 holiday season, retailers should take stock not just of their inventory, but also the way they do (or do not) provide options for giving the consumer greater say in how a gift will be presented.

Google Image Search and Related Searches Results for “Presents,” September 2011

Posted by Paul Nauert, The Google Retail Team