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The Self-Gift That Keeps on Giving : Award-Winning Paper Examines Shopping, Loneliness

Product package boxes and shopping bag in cart with laptop computer which web store shop on screen for online shopping and delivery concept

For Brent Smith, professor and chair of Emerson’s Marketing Communication department, the widespread loneliness felt during the pandemic raised questions in his marketer’s mind about self-gifting, an industry term that relates to how consumers shop for themselves. 

If self-gifting resulted from social isolation before the pandemic, as studies indicated, then what happened during the COVID crisis?  Moreover, how might the trend vary between two different cultures, such as the U.S. and India? And what can marketers and consumers alike learn from the trends? 

Smith shared his curiosity with two colleagues—University of North Georgia professor Cindy Rippé and Suri Weisfeld-Spolter, professor at Nova Southeastern University —and together they researched and co-authored the paper, “The Global Phenomenon of Lonely and Insecure Self-Gifters: Cross-Cultural Insights from the United States and India.”

The paper clearly resonated among their peers at the  2021 Society for Marketing Advances Conference, where it was awarded best paper for the “Cross-Cultural, Global, and Emerging Marketing” track and the Steven J. Shaw/Joe Hair Award for best paper in the conference. Not long after, they wrote a related paper for publication in the International Journal of Consumer Studies.

Headshot of Marketing Communications professor Brent Smith
Professor Brent Smith

“We don’t do research for awards,” Smith said, “but it doesn’t hurt. It’s nice to have the validation because it’s an award that comes from our peers. That helps us understand that we’re on to something, and we’re going to continue identifying more key questions in this lane.”

All three researchers wanted their work to be applicable to every type of consumer. Self-gifting was a fitting focus to ensure this visibility.

For Me, Buy Me

“Self-gifting is very individually focused,” Smith said. “Materialism doesn’t necessarily require wealth. It just requires enough spending power to get an item that represents something to you.”

Since self-gifting is accessible, marketers are able to examine its impacts on a global scale. For Smith’s team, this included comparing the prominence of loneliness and self-gifting in the U.S. and India.

“Self-gifting is essentially all-inclusive. We can look within any given country and compare any two or three countries and produce relevant insights for marketers anywhere in the world,” Smith said. “That excites us. It’s the epitome of relevance for us.”

Through their exploration, Smith, Rippé, and Weisfeld-Spolter affirmed that feelings of loneliness and isolation motivate consumers to shop more. The increased loneliness during and following the height of the pandemic manifested itself differently in American versus Indian consumers.

The American economy is more developed, and thus Americans generally have higher levels of individualism and indulgence than their international counterparts. Still, the team’s research indicated that countries with developing economies, like India, are becoming more motivated to self-gift.

“Attachment theory applies to every single individual,” Smith said. “In some cultures, you would wait for other people to celebrate you. In the U.S., we have become more of, ‘Hey, I just accomplished this. I’m going to celebrate me.’ Because of the cultural flows, we can expect other consumers will do the same thing to make this really a global phenomenon. No one is unaffected by loneliness.”

Smith hopes to continue researching and illuminating consumer behaviors like self-gifting in the coming years. 

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Isabella Luzarraga View All

Isa is a senior journalism major minoring in media studies. She is from Omaha, Nebraska but loves coming back to the city. Outside of coursework, Isa is the Managing Editor of Your Magazine, the secretary of Emerson's chapter of NAHJ and a freelance writer for publications nationwide. She loves reading in the Common, going for long runs and sipping iced coffee.

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