Mandatory Giving

With the prevalence of loss leaders, lowest price guarantees, package deals that save you so much money, and other marketing techniques, it is easy to get trapped worrying about which retailer is the best deal to obtain what you seek. However, I wonder if there is a greater casualty than our time: our sense of joy at receiving a gift.

My wife and I were having lunch in a local café today that, due to a problem with the telephone line, did not have internet access. This meant they were unable to take card payments or offer free wi-fi. The young man in front of me in the queue tried to pay by card, and instead had to go to the cash point to take out enough money to cover his bill; which he did without complaint. However, shortly after I overheard him complaining to the staff the internet was not working, and that it was the only reason he had come to the café rather than the library. He then stormed off 10 metres down the road to the library, leaving his coffee and cake.

I was both puzzled and amused that he did not think having to go to a cash point in the rain because the card machine was not working was fine, but not receiving free wi-fi was worth storming out over. What was there about something being free that made its removal worse than increased difficulty in paying?

Free Gift
Brett JordanCC BY 2.0)

While some free benefits are not (for example the “free pastry” that actually covers an increase in drink prices), a business that has a wireless internet connection anyway is covering the cost through sales whether or not they allow customers to use it, so no-one is loosing out on something they have arguably paid for.

Had he accepted a perceived lower quality of coffee or cake to have free wi-fi, there might be a quasi-cost, but his alternative was to use the library.

I am divided on the issue of free benefits as a marketing technique to draw customers: however, I do feel it is better to treat them as free. If I buy something and usually receive extra that is not (explicitly or implicitly) listed as part of the package, then I have not lost anything if I do not get it.

The consequences of expecting the benefit rather than being surprised each time are two-fold:

  • loss of joy: if someone gives you a gift you feel a moment of pleasure, because your day has improved; a pleasure you do not feel if someone merely gives you what you have purchased.

  • increased chance of further loss: while there is no celestial organisation carefully applying punishments, focusing on negatives can lead to experiencing them; as is demonstrated by the young man not only not having his internet, but also leaving the coffee and cake he had paid for.

Therefore – unless I have expended extra effort or otherwise changed my behaviour because of an explicit representation – I try always to remember that free gifts are gifts first and free benefits second.

Do you believe you can be entitled to a gift? Do you avoid places that offer free benefits?


2 thoughts on “Mandatory Giving

  1. This, I like and agree with. I feel the same way about many types of gifts and free things. One is what I first thought of when I read your title…Hallmark Holidays, as my husband calls them. The mandatory days you must give something to someone that thus frequently become the only times people do. We have always preferred to give something when we find something that makes us think of them or want to do something for them. It is somehow easier to be appropriately grateful and pleased when it is unexpected. Perhaps this is part of it, they expect the free extras and thus it becomes a requirement in their mind. But you are correct – a gift is to be gratefully and graciously received.


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