The traditional view of the holidays is marked by the exchange of physical gifts under the Christmas tree—a book for the bookworm, an apron for the chef, running shoes for the fitness enthusiast.
But that romantic concept is increasingly no longer the reality, based on survey data from the tech firm Recurly. Led by younger consumers, gift-givers are increasingly opting for gift cards and other non-tangible gifts—usually for convenience, but increasingly for other reasons as well, such as sustainability and minimalism.
In its new survey, “Unwrap the Subscriptions: 2023 Holiday Trends,” Recurly asked consumers about their preferences for non-tangible gifts like gift cards and streaming subscriptions vs. traditional wrapped, physical gifts like clothes, wallets and perfume. The data shows that the preference for giving physical gifts in person declines as respondents get younger. While it’s at 50% for Boomers, it decreases steadily, generation by generation, with only 23% of Gen Z citing this as a reason they prefer not to send non-tangible gifts.
Gen Z is also the most likely generation to have ever received one example of a non-tangible gift—a gift subscription, with 42% saying they had received one, compared to 40% of Millennials, 24% of Gen X, 14% of younger Boomers, and 22% of older Boomers. This shows a consistent trend of non-tangible gifts becoming more and more popular the younger the consumer.
In a supplemental survey, respondents were asked if they thought there was a generational difference in attitudes toward tangible gift-giving during the holidays. Nearly half (47%) of respondents said, “Yes, older people prefer to give tangible gifts,” vs. only 15% who said that younger people prefer to give tangible gifts. Another 30% said there was no difference is gift-giving preference based on age, and 8% said they weren’t sure.
What’s driving this change for younger consumers? Convenience is a major factor, with 54% of respondents citing this as a primary reason they mostly give gift cards. In fact, fully 13% of respondents said they primarily give gifts cards for the holidays even though they enjoy giving tangible gifts more. Younger men, in particular, are driven by convenience in gift-giving, with 22% of men under 35 saying they primarily give gift cards despite enjoying giving tangible gifts more.
While convenience is an important factor steering younger consumers to gift cards, it is not the only reason. Many younger consumers say they prefer gift cards or other non-tangible gifts (e.g., cooking classes or spa days) because they are eco-friendly, to embrace minimalism, or because they give longer-lasting memories than physical gifts.
In fact, 67% of adult respondents under 35 said they expect a further shift to more environmentally-friendly gift options in the future. In addition, 41% of those under 35 who still prefer to give tangible gifts said they would consider switching to non-tangible gifts to “reduce waste and promote sustainability” in the future.