ISU College of Business experts have studied gift cards, wait lines and popular virtual gifts

AMES, Iowa -- "Black Friday," the official start of the holiday shopping season, is just days away and Iowa State University's College of Business has experts who have studied topics related to the holiday shopping season.

THE REAL VALUE OF GIFT CARDS -- Gift cards remain the most-requested item on consumers' gift lists, according to the National Retail Federation, making them attractive to retailers and value-conscious shoppers alike. Laura Smarandescu, an assistant professor of marketing at Iowa State, joined with researchers from the University of British Columbia and Boston University to study how consumers budget for and spend gift cards. The study of 150 undergraduates from University of South Carolina, who were given either $20 cash or a $20 gift card, found that those with gift cards were more likely to spend greater amounts, violate their budgets, and accept higher prices than those who were given cash. "Basically, people are less price-sensitive when they pay with a gift card rather than cash, because cash is associated more with pain of paying," Smarandescu said. "When you pay with cash, you feel like you lose it right away. But with gift cards, people earmark that amount for personal spending, so they want to buy something pleasurable." Smarandescu reports that gift cards are popular with merchants because they profit from them without necessarily selling a product. "Some gift card holders also don't end up using them, or they use them as partial payment on a more expensive item," she said. The researchers presented the results at Marketing Science and the spring meeting of the Midwest Economic Association, and their paper is under review by a professional journal. CONTACT: Smarandescu, (515) 294-3065,

THE WAIT LINE EXPERIENCE -- One thing shoppers can expect on "Black Friday" is customers waiting in long lines. According to Deanne Brocato, an assistant professor of marketing at ISU who studies waiting time and its emotional effect on consumers, how that experience goes may determine whether a customer comes back. And it may even create opportunity. "Even when you have a service failure (like longer wait times), what we see is that you can create a stronger bond with consumers, based on how you deal with it," she said. Brocato worked with researchers from Michigan State University, Texas Christian University, Auburn University and Florida State University on a study examining the waiting experiences of 1,305 customers at either a bank, hair-cutting establishment, sit-down restaurant, or oil-change center from two medium-sized metropolitan areas in the southeastern United States. Their paper, titled "It Depends: Moderating the Relationships Among Perceived Waiting Time, Anger, and Regret," was published in this month's issue of the Journal of Service Research. The researchers found that the effects of waiting time on consumers' anger and regret toward their service experience can be significantly reduced or prevented by managing perceptions in three areas: perceived justice of the wait, affective commitment, and quality of the physical environment. CONTACT: Brocato, (515) 294-9634,

WHAT'S THE VIRTUAL FASCINATION? -- Some of the more popular holiday gift items -- such as Webkinz, the Wii and World of Warcraft -- suggest that today's young people are being raised through their virtual avatars. There's even a major motion picture, "Avatar," being released on Dec. 18. But what's the fascination? A team of Iowa State University researchers explain it in a study about Embodied Social Presence® (ESP) -- a theory they say presents a framework for understanding interactions and communication activities in multi-user virtual environments. They analyze previous research on participation in virtual environments, as well as their own study of 59 ISU students who are Second Life users in the paper. The researchers contend that while virtual environments share commonalities with traditional mediated communication tools such as e-mail, instant messaging, video conferencing, teleconferencing and discussion forums, ESP enhances the interaction by re-creating the experience of physical proximity through the use of the avatar -- a graphical image that represents the user in the online virtual world. "What our paper gets into is why that perceptual realm in Second Life is so real to that person," said lead author Brian Mennecke, an ISU associate professor of management information systems. "Why do they perceive that actor in there as someone who's worth investing cognitive, physical and temporal effort and resources in -- where the perceptions they develop are so realistic that it seems more real than it sounds like it should be from a computer image?" CONTACT: Mennecke, (515) 294-8100,