Assistant Marketing Professor Tonya Williams Bradford has spent her academic career studying gift giving, conducting research on everything from trust funds to organ donations to philanthropic endowments. She first became interested in the subject as an undergraduate anthropology major at Northwestern University.
“Giving gifts is a foundational practice in pretty much every culture,” Bradford says. “If you follow the gifts, you begin to understand what the culture values.”
But when Bradford began studying wedding registries about six years ago, she became increasingly puzzled.
“All gifts have the same basic purpose,” Bradford says. “They’re
about conveying affection and expressing the relationship between the gift giver and the recipient. The gift registry is odd in that you’re being told what to buy. It’s a total difference from what gift giving should be about.”
According to Bradford’s recent paper in the Journal of Retailing (co-written with John F. Sherry Jr., the Raymond W. and Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Marketing), weddings and gifts have always gone hand in hand, whether through dowries, “bridewealth” (the payment made by the groom or his family to his wife’s family in order to ratify the marriage), or today’s bridal showers. The modern-day wedding industry emerged in the 19th century out of the practices of the social elite, who institutionalized the custom of mandatory gift giving. If wedding guests needed a suggestion, they would ask the mother of the bride.
“It was a matriarchal system,” Bradford says. “The mom used to organize the gift list; it would be something where she would collect things from her own home and ask other people for things from their homes.”
By the turn of the 20th century, however, retailers were beginning to exploit the growing market for wedding gifts and introduced in-house gift registries—usually a piece of paper listing the desired gifts—as a way to attract more business. At first, the registries were used mainly by the wealthy, but they quickly gained popularity with the growing middle class. Today gift registries generate approximately $19 billion of sales every year in the United States, accounting for almost half of the $47.2 billion wedding industry.
As wedding registries became more popular, retailers introduced registries for other occasions. As Bradford observes, you can now register for birthdays, graduations and baby showers; there are even “hedge registries” offering gift purchasers opportunities to obtain refunds for their gifts if the marriage ends within three years. There doesn’t even have to be an occasion; many websites, such as Amazon.com, allow any consumer to create a “wish list” of desired products.
Registries have been criticized for draining the spontaneity and personality out of gift giving. According to Bradford, there are now online registries that allow you to choose your gift solely by price, without ever knowing what you’ve bought. Other retailers, however, are going in the opposite direction, trying to give consumers more input on their purchase.
“They’re trying to work with the gift giver to re-infuse some of that personal sentiment back into the gift selection and giving process,” Bradford says.
Of course, registries also present a challenge to the soon-to-be-married couple. Since the entire process is conducted in public, their every decision may be scrutinized by friends and family. Bradford’s research suggests that couples use gift registries to establish a new identity.
“When you’re newly married, you’re negotiating all these things, basics like how to eat dinner, what kind of a bed will you sleep on,” Bradford says. “In a consumer society, you begin to live out a lot of these decisions in the marketplace. And this happens in a very public way, as things get put on or taken off the list.”
In the course of her research, Bradford learned about the phenomenon of “registry stalkers”—people who spy on the wedding registries of total strangers. Bradford says that you can go into any department store, enter a common name like Smith into the computerized registry, and pull up the wish lists of dozens of couples.
“I think people have this strange desire to look inside people’s homes,” she says. “The wedding registry is just another instantiation of that curiosity we have about how people live their lives.”
If you can discover what a culture values through its approach to gift giving, as Bradford believes, then what do wedding registries say about the United States? What will the anthropologist of the future learn about us by reading our registries?
“Gift registries support the idea that we’re a ‘have it all now’ society,” Bradford says. “People used to build a life together, starting with very meager means, and accumulate things over time. Now you have everything you need to host a major holiday the day after the wedding.”
In addition to her academic training, Bradford brings a personal perspective to the project, since she was in the midst of planning her own wedding during much of her research. Because of that research, she says that it took her “forever” to set up her own registry; she couldn’t help analyzing her every decision. In the end, she decided to register at Bed Bath & Beyond, where she had already conducted numerous interviews.
“I have a very special relationship with the local Bed Bath & Beyond, because between registering and interviewing other women who were registering, I spent an inordinate amount of time there,” Bradford says, laughing. “I got to know the staff, the management, the customers … now we’re like friends. Even now, six years later, I go into the store and they’re like ‘Hey! What are you up to?’”