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Now over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen noticeable effects on consumer behavior, many we expect to carry over into this year. One major shift has been to how people approach gift giving.

Restrictions placed on real-world socializing have made it challenging to establish or maintain relationships during the pandemic. One way people have sought to keep connected is through giving. Global searches for “online gift” increased by 80% in 2020 compared to 2019.1 Not only that, the desire to give has expanded beyond the typical special occasions — like birthdays and holidays — and beyond immediate family or social circle to the wider community.

A line drawing of a wrapped gift box overlaid with a green growth arrow accompanies the statistic, “80% increase in global searches for "online gift" in 2020 compared to 2019.”

In addition to combing through search data, Google teamed up with The Green Room Collective to conduct in-depth interviews with consumers in the U.S. to understand their motivations. We observed three behavioral shifts.

Making up for lost time, lost experiences

Proms, graduations, birthdays, family vacations. A lot of milestones were dramatically altered or outright canceled in 2020. So before even getting to gifts for such occasions, people tried to make up for the fact that they were lost in the first place.

Judging by searches, many people tried to recreate experiences at home.

  • Searches for “how to celebrate” (“how to celebrate birthday meaningfully,” “how to celebrate birthday during quarantine”) grew 30% year over year.2
  • Google Image searches for “birthday banner background” have grown globally by over 100% year over year.3
  • Searches for “anniversary video maker” have grown globally by over 200% year over year.4

And a number of people told us they were overcompensating to make up for these lost experiences.

“These kids who graduated from high school got like six graduation parties when they might have only gotten one dinner and the graduation ceremony,” said one respondent. “I probably ended up giving more gifts,” said another. “It takes on more meaning this year.”5

Giving the gift of help

The urge to give during the pandemic has been about more than giving presents to immediate family, in an effort to make up for lost time. In examining search results and our interviews, it’s clear that, as people witnessed others in their community and around the world suffer through difficult times, they felt compelled to do something about it.

  • Searches for “volunteer opportunities near me” have grown globally by over 50% year over year (for example, “family friendly volunteer opportunities near me”).6
  • Google Maps searches for “donation centers near me” have grown globally by over 100% year over year.7

One respondent told us about her elderly neighbor. “He lives by himself. And he was sick. … I just went online and got the food. And that was just my way of showing him that, you know, I care. I’m thinking about him.”

As people witnessed others in their community and around the world suffer through difficult times, they felt compelled to do something about it.

The notion of caring about emotional support also came through in searches, especially with so many people unable to connect in real life. For example, Google Image searches for “long distance miss you quotes” have grown globally by over 700% year over year.8 One interview respondent told us that she “gifted my friend a picnic, as she was feeling very down."

A line drawing of a laptop showing a travel photo accompanies the stat, “700% increase in Google Image searches for ‘long distance miss you quotes’ year over year.”

Taking a pragmatic approach

Of course, during social distancing, giving a gift to loved ones or donating to the wider community comes with special challenges. People want to make extra sure they are giving the right gifts and that whatever they give actually gets to the recipient.

“The returns will be an issue this year as people may not prefer to go to the stores,” said one respondent. “I think this year I’m gonna have to ask for a list and buy something specific for people.”

A line drawing of a gift card accompanies the statistic, “Searches for ‘gift card online’ have grown globally by over 100% year over year.”

“I am thinking more practically this time,” said one person we interviewed. “So many people are in need of basic groceries instead of sweaters this year. So I think I will have grocery gift cards.”

That behavior was apparent in search. Searches for “gift card online” have grown globally by over 100% year over year (for example, “[fill in brand] gift card online,” “how to use a [fill in brand] gift card online”).9 People unable to make personal visits want to make sure their gifts get to where they need to go, with searches for “shipping rates” growing globally by over 90% year over year.10

Thinking beyond traditional gift giving

For many people, gifting in 2020 grew beyond just an act of love on special occasions to one of empathy and a way to bridge the physical distance caused by quarantine.

That has implications for marketers. It’s an indication that they should expand their gifting strategy beyond special dates as well as broaden their messaging to consider these new emotional motivations behind gift giving. Now that so much of this gift shopping is happening online, brands have ample opportunity to use consumer signals of intent to better tailor both their messaging and product offerings.