The first step in giving a great gift is knowing what not to give

Add to cart?
Add to cart?
Image: Reuters/Neil Hall
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The holidays are almost here and you might be realizing that you still don’t know what to get for everyone on your list.

Unfortunately there are no hard-and-fast rules on what makes a great gift. The best ones often succeed because of how well you know the person you’re buying for—and often even that doesn’t much help. People now routinely expect to get gifts that they don’t want. A recent holiday shopping survey (pdf) found that nearly 25% of respondents planned to return or exchange a gift, without even knowing what might be on the way.

Luckily there other approaches finding the right present; you can start by figuring out what to avoid. Below are a few tips on products you may want to pass over, unless you happen to know specifically that one of these items is someone’s list.


As much as people may enjoy buying clothes for themselves, they rarely keep what they get from others. Clothing is consistently among the gifts people return most.

The reasons are myriad. Everyone has their own personal style, and determining the right size to buy for someone else can be an impossible task. Sizing is particularly tricky for women’s clothes, since it varies widely by brand and also changes over time.

Performance clothing and footwear may seem easier to give because of its focus on function, but even these items are frequently returned. You’re buying for someone’s workout needs in addition to trying to decipher their personal taste. Cathy Sparks, vice president of retail concepts for Nike, told Newsweek last year people often exchange items “for ones that better suit their routine or style.” She suggested opting for accessories, such as a hat or socks, which are rarely returned.

Hard liquor

Many people look to hard booze, such as whiskey, vodka, or rum as a fallback gift, but not everyone loves to receive it. A Consumer Reports survey of 1,500 adults in Dec. 2014 found that hard liquor was the gift respondents found least desirable.

That doesn’t mean all alcohol is off the table. Far fewer people disliked the idea of receiving wine, and liquors like scotch, bourbon and are returned less. If you feel compelled to buy something for an amateur mixologist however, there is guidance that suggests you skip the glassware.

Home decor

The second and third-place entries in Consumer Reports’ survey of what not to buy were plants and home items, such as candles and picture frames. To give someone a plant is to also give them the added responsibility of caring for it. As for home items, many people go for novelty or kitsch, but what looked fun or funny on the store shelves can wind up unused and taking up space in someone’s home.

Within this category, candles hold an especially maligned place. They’re a gift that, to many, is by now such an uninspired fallback that giving one can just seem thoughtless. A recent Saturday Night Live skit even parodied the gift candle in a song. Some of the lyrics:

A woman has to get a gift for some girl at work named Jen
She doesn’t know what Jen likes, and she doesn’t super-care,
So she goes inside her closet, just to see what crap’s in there

What she finds is a candle, which she slaps a bow on and hands over to said Jen.

If you’ve thought about it and really believe the person you’re giving to would like that incredible candle you found, then go for it. In that case, it should look nice as well as smell nice. Otherwise, take a pass and search for something else.

Gifts that convey the wrong message

Perhaps you know of an anti-aging cream that would be great for someone who has mentioned he’s feeling a little older, or you know the perfect product for a young woman who has acne problems. Don’t buy it. These gifts are more likely to make the person receiving them feel more self-conscious than appreciative.

Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University, calls this type of gift a well-meant misfire. “Misfires most often occur when the giver experiences a momentary deficiency of empathy,” she wrote in Time. “They weren’t thinking from the point of view of the recipient, but their own. This sort of mistake is easy to make during the rush and stress of the holidays.”

Clothing can fall into this category. Giving someone an extra-large when they wear a medium, for instance can be interpreted as an insult. Even an extravagant gift like a set of golf clubs can fall flat if you give them to a person was who might now have time to play because they were recently laid off. Avoiding this miscommunication requires being thoughtful about the other person’s point of view.

Gifts that are about you

These gifts, which are more about the giver than the receiver, come in different forms. Yarrow spoke with one woman, for instance, who was unhappy to get diamond earrings from her husband because she knew he gave them to her to impress his parents and compete with his brother. “Those stupid earrings didn’t have a thing to do with me or what I wanted or needed,” she said.

If you happen to really love football, but your spouse doesn’t, don’t give tickets to a football game because you think it will allow you to enjoy it together. Think of what your spouse likes, and get tickets for that instead.

Remember, the point of a gift is to show you’re thinking about the other person. If your gift fails that basic test, then get thinking. For you truly severe procrastinators in need of idea, our Quartz guide on last-minute holiday shopping may help.