How many unwanted gifts?

The holiday season is an excellent time to sneak some non-genuine research through whatever quality gatekeepers still exist in the media. Today we report on a repeat offender – eBay.

Reported in all Australian media today, including Reuters, was a story about unwanted gifts – which followed the same lines of a survey reported in the USA media in 2006:

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Attention gift givers: according to the third annual Holiday Re-Gifting Survey commissioned by eBay (Nasdaq:EBAY), the vast majority of Americans — more than 57 percent — say they normally receive holiday presents they don’t like

the UK in 2007

According to a survey, …around £1.2bn was spent on unwanted gifts this Christmas. Put another way, each of us spent £20 buying presents for friends and family who did not want them.

in Australia in 2008.


Proving that the thought really doesn’t count for much, Australians have been left nursing a post Christmas financial hangover as they try to figure out what to do with more than 18.8 million unwanted gifts worth a total of $978 million.

in the UK in 2009:

MORE than £700 million will have been spent across Britain on unwanted Christmas presents this year.

New research, carried out by eBay and TNS, has found that the average person will snub one in 11 presents they receive on Christmas morning.

and in Australia in 2010:

AUSTRALIANS have been lumped with 19 million unwanted gifts worth about $500 million this Christmas, but not everyone is grumpy with grandma. An estimated one million people will turn their dud gifts into cash by selling them on the internet, research commissioned by online auction house eBay has found.

The problem with these figures – the old mistake of generalizing from a volunteer sample. Who do you think is going to volunteer for an online survey – those with a good story to tell about a bad present, or those who are basking in the glow of well chosen gifts? The media reports either ignore the details of the research design and data collection, or try to dress it up with words that might imply respectability:

Survey Methodology: This national survey was conducted by Survey.com in November 2006. Five hundred respondents over the age of 18 completed the survey. The margin of error was +/- 4.4% (95% confidence interval). (2006 USA survey)

Ah – only if it’s a random sample.

And my favorite:

* Research conducted by Galaxy, October 2008. Quantative internet survey, adults aged 18-64 years, research analysed by gender, age and state (2008 Australian survey reported on the EBay site, complete with typo)

Yes, we all know that being quantitative makes it scientific and true. Hmm,

There is an alternative. A 2003 Ebay survey in Canada used a random sample to gather data (although they didn’t report their response rate):

According to the survey, two out of every three (67 per cent) Canadians receives at least one unwanted gift during the holiday.

Related posts and references:

Bad faith survey – biassing the sample used in a survey about stimulus expenditure in schools

The Nation says “No’ – misrepresentation of a volunteer sample – party political use of surveys and statistical reporting

2 comments to How many unwanted gifts?

  • Debra Robertson-Welsh

    Don’t you just love the use mis-use of percentages.

  • Chad Green

    Adlai Stevenson once said, “Accuracy to a newspaper is what virtue is to a lady; but a newspaper can always print a retraction.”

    Is accuracy in our field a subset of any specific virtues? If so, which one(s)? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtue

    Then again, do we evaluators equate accuracy with virtue itself? If so, perhaps someone could add it to the Wikipedia page above.

    Chad