Feed Shoppers’ Creativity To Turn ‘White Elephant’ Parties Into Sales Drivers

White Elephant parties, a gamified gift exchange often featuring unconventional items, are more than a niche tradition: 36 million Americans are expected to participate in these gift exchanges this holiday season, which could account for up to $22 billion in associated gift sales, according to zulily. With an appropriate marketing and pricing strategy, almost any retailer can generate sales from the concept.

“I think there’s room for everyone to get in on this trend,” said Naama Bloom, VP of Brand Marketing at zulily in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “You don’t have to sell quirky products to have great products for a White Elephant.”

The ever-changing nature of zulily’s product selection makes the site a natural destination for White Elephant gifts and inspiration, and Bloom offered tips to help retailers capture their share of this booming market:

  • Know your audience: Potential White Elephant gifts should appeal to a retailer’s existing shopper base rather than chase outside trends;
  • Price appropriately: Most gift exchanges involve inexpensive gifts, so advertise accordingly; and
  • Inspire creativity: Whether they want something quirky, clever or practical, shoppers want to bring gifts that stand out.

It’s All About Showing Off The Goods

For the unfamiliar, a White Elephant party is equal parts gift-giving, considered diplomacy and ruthless backstabbing. Each participant brings a wrapped, unidentified gift that gets added to a communal pool. Players take turns choosing whether they want to take a new item from the pile or steal something that has already been unwrapped. If they choose an unwrapped gift, that item’s previous owner gets another chance to unwrap or steal. The game lasts until everyone has a gift.


“The best thing about White Elephant is the bragging rights of winning, meaning you got the gift everybody was fighting over,” said Bloom. “From a retailer’s perspective, what you want to do is help your customers win. Show them the product that only they may have thought of, and they walk away with those bragging rights.”

Retailers should use both photography and copy to show off why their product will be the game’s must-have prize. Even everyday items can fit the bill — it’s simply up to the retailer to recontextualize the product in a new light. Social media is a powerful platform for these sorts of messages, as the same kind of item that would be a hit at a White Elephant party has the potential to go viral across the web.

“Copy and language really help to identify new use cases for products you’re already selling,” said Bloom. “As a marketer, one of the ways I like to think about communicating to our customers is really giving them the reason why they would want the product.”

Whether Quirky Or Practical, Gifts Make A Statement

Ultimately, the most important aspect of a good White Elephant gift is that it reflects the person giving it. That can be a hair belly fanny pack, or a wine glass that looks like a full bottle: in a survey conducted by zulily, 46% of shoppers said they wanted to elicit a laugh from their family and friends. However, another 35% identified the ideal gift as quirky but useful, like a hand towel with an amusing phrase.

Of course, a gift doesn’t have to be funny to be successful. Gifts that are “perfectly practical” or “something [their] kids/family [would] love” would each inspire 20% of Americans to steal them. Bloom brought an umbrella to her office White Elephant last year, and the gift was a hit. While 18% of survey respondents said they’d want a triceratops taco holder, absolutely no one likes getting caught in the rain.

“It really depends on if you’re a pragmatist, like me, or if you want people to laugh,” said Bloom. “I like to get something practical, because at the end of the party everyone’s always feeling excited for the practical gifts — but we also had quite an aggressive swap on a prosecco pong game last year.”

Wholesome gifts belong front-and-center regardless of whether they’re useful or humorous, but retailers also must recognize items that have sales potential but may offend some partygoers. For example, even though 8% of respondents were looking for “anything with potty humor,” catering to this small segment may turn off the 35% who see White Elephants as an opportunity to spend time with friends and family.

“The reason people go to White Elephant parties is really for the bonding, and for the storytelling after,” said Bloom. “As a retailer selling these kinds of products, you really want to help your customers be successful. One way, as silly as this sounds, is the success of winning white elephant. Getting the gift that everyone talks about makes you feel great.”



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