Every gift requires two decisions on the part of the giver: first, what to buy, and second - increasingly important! - how to wrap it to make a maximum impression. That could explain why some of the longest lines in stores and malls this season can be found not at the cash registers or even in the food courts, but at the gift-wrapping counters.
Purchases in hand, customers wait patiently - or not so patiently - for their turn to choose from a bedazzling array of shiny papers, gold-edged ribbons, and matching ornaments tied to the bow. Depending on the size of the package and the status of the store, shoppers will spend anywhere from $2 to (gulp) $15 to have a plain box transformed into a seasonal work of art, guaranteed to elicit appreciative comments even before it's opened.
The practical-minded could argue that this increasingly popular service adds up to a lot of money for something so ephemeral, so guaranteed to end up in the trash by Christmas night. Yet those who run gift-wrapping services expect a banner year, with male customers increasingly outnumbering women as Dec. 25 approaches.
Across the country, gift-wrap supplies alone represent a $1.3 billion industry, according to Hallmark. In Boston, a charity that sponsors gift-wrapping booths at several shopping malls this month will net tens of thousands of dollars from its services.
Call this The Age of Packaging, when the comforting old sentiment, "It's what's inside that counts," has been upstaged by the recognition that what's on the outside can be important, too. Americans are learning what the Japanese, world masters of supremely elegant wrappings, have long known - that presentation is an art form. Would a gift from Tiffany's, for example, however beautiful and costly, still carry the same cachet if it didn't come tucked inside the store's famous robin's-egg-blue box?
Yet The Age of Packaging is hardly confined to objects and gifts. From cosmetics to clothes, the art of packaging people as attractively as possible has never been bigger business, or, as author John Molloy sees it, more important.
This month, nearly 20 years after Mr. Molloy wrote his bestselling book, "Dress for Success," he is publishing a sequel, the "New Women's Dress for Success." Despite women's progress in the workplace, and despite the popularity of casual Friday, Molloy, who has been called "America's first wardrobe engineer," sees continuing evidence of improper packaging, sartorially speaking.
"The right clothing can give you the competitive edge," he says. But he also cautions that the wrong clothes can derail promotions and stall careers.
In the same way that the true meaning of a gift can never be measured by the wrapping, the idea that an employee will succeed or fail as much on the basis of appearance as ability is an unfortunate argument for packaging. It runs the risk of reducing everyone to the predicament of politicians in TV ads, who are supposed to look presidential, or whatever, never mind what's within.
Packaging is not magic. Bubble gum inside a Tiffany jewel box will never turn into a diamond.
On the other hand, the most innovative argument for packaging may come from the often-maligned Martha Stewart, who this year - surprise - is promoting "cheap elegance." Instead of buying expensive Christmas wrapping, she suggests, the gift-giver should devise his or her own, inexpensively but tastefully, with tulle and tissue paper. In this way, the wrapping actually becomes the creative part of the gift.
It may be an ingenious compromise, allowing the proverbial book to be judged by its cover. Still, in a season of excess and fancy packaging, when gorgeous lights and high-fidelity carols camouflage whatever is less than beautiful in cities and neighborhoods, and when bows and furbelows reign supreme under the tree, Ms. Stewart's minimalist "wrap for success" approach could be an idea whose time has not yet quite come.