Gift-giving: Boon and bane

People are now rushing to buy gifts for friends, colleagues, clients, and loved ones. As early as November, we scour online and offline marketplaces to find the best deals and bargains for gifts. Companies start as early as June to prepare their corporate giveaways for clients, employees, and business partners.

But our tradition of gift-giving is not limited to the Christmas season. This custom is deeply engrained in our culture, stemming from the Filipino trait of caring for others. Apart from the humanistic significance of gift-giving, it fuels a whole industry spanning retail, advertising, logistics, and various cottage industries that produce knickknacks.

Household Final Consumption Expenditure (HFCE) increases by 20 percent every 4th quarter of the year, driven by Filipino consumers’ purchases in categories such as recreation and culture, communication, alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and food and non-alcoholic beverages. Google Trends shows that there has been an 85% increase in mobile searches in the past two years, with the height of searches for “where to buy” happening right around the corner of December 25.

That’s why the retail and corporate gift-giving sectors have experienced robust sales these past years, peaking during the holiday season. In fact, the corporate gifting industry’s negotiated sales is estimated to have breached P80 billion in 2016 alone, based on Corporate Giveaway Exposition organizers. It is also estimated that advertising as its support industry was close to US$2 billion, with digital media accounting for close to US$400 million.

Likewise, online sales and e-commerce have been experiencing vigorous growth, peaking again during the fourth quarter. With 67 million Facebook users, our country is a hotbed for online sales for gift-giving.

Revenue in the e-commerce market amounts to US$840 million in 2018, according to the statistics portal Statistica. Revenue is expected to show an annual growth rate of 10.5 percent in the next five years, resulting in a market volume of US$1,383 million by 2023.

All of these contribute to the economic activities of the country, providing employment to millions of Filipinos. But behind the apparent multifaceted benefits gift-giving brings at the human and economic levels, there are creeping real and potential issues.

For one, there is the issue of the huge credit card debt people incur, especially during the peak month of December, including having to pay interest on unpaid balances for months afterwards. It is one of the biggest problems faced by many Filipinos after the holidays. As a matter of fact, total credit card debt in the Philippine banking system has topped P157 billion with a whopping P15 billion of this classified as non-performing, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.

Not only that, one indirect cost of our tradition of gift-giving is the monstrous traffic in the cities as a result of people scrambling to finish their holiday shopping. According to the Metro Manila Development Authority, traffic volume along EDSA and other major roads near shopping centers increases by some 15-20 percent between November and December. This adds to the already huge losses of P140 billion annually attributed to wasted gasoline, lost labor hours, employment of traffic aides, and wasted electricity, according to studies.

But probably the biggest societal impact of the gift-giving is that it has become part of the social norm and spawned a concept called “utang na loob” (debt of gratitude). This is a good Filipino trait in its entirety, as it imposes upon the individual a sense responsibility towards others.

Unfortunately, though, it also breeds corruption in private or public organizations, be it a supplier giving lavish gifts to a client or an individual seeking favor from a public official. It has been pointed out in many studies as one of the deeply embedded cultural traits that sustain corruption in our society.

In the end, gift-giving is a human gesture we can’t live without. It is an expression of our gratitude, appreciation, and love for another person.

We just have to do it within the bounds or regularity, sound practices, and ethical conduct. After all, as the proverbial expression goes, “It’s the thought that counts.”

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of FINEX. The author may be emailed at The author is president & CEO of Hungry Workhorse Consultancy, Inc., a digital and culture transformation firm. He is the chairman of the ICT Committee of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines and teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University.