By Michelle Boorstein
The Washington Post
— They say it's better to give than to receive, but They haven't been to the mall lately.
Americans are doing more and more holiday shopping for themselves, data over the past decade show, even as planned gift-buying for family members has stayed steady (sorry, friends and co-workers, your numbers are down).
The reasons are complicated, including a recession that's transformed what used to be a magical few days of strolling past Santa-themed window displays into a weeks-long, competitive fire sale. But experts on consumer psychology say a major cultural shift has been building: It has now become acceptable — even necessary — to give ourselves treats and rewards all year long. We're ripe for a new generation of ads like J. Crew's "To: You, From: You," or Bare Minerals' "What's your gift?"
Is the old-fashioned concept of the gift, that emblem of humility, in danger?
During a recent afternoon at the Pentagon City mall in Arlington, Md., one person after another first said they were there to buy holiday gifts for others, then sheepishly showed off their haul for Numero Uno.
"I was supposed to be holiday shopping," said Katrina Wyder-flowers, 47, as she carefully removed two big boxes from a bag next to her lunch table in the mall atrium and opened them. Out came a pair of blue leather boots, then a pair of mahogany ones, both with super-high heels. "I love a bargain."
Some retail experts call this "gift conversion" — the dance you do in your head when you wind up buying for yourself after ostensibly going out to shop for someone else. Economic, demographic and generational changes, they say, have had a Pavlovian effect. Americans hear "Christmas" and think "massive bargain-shopping for all the stuff I didn't get during the year."
A major driver of what retailers refer to as "self-gifting" is the tough economy, which has transformed holiday retailing. There have been Black Friday sales for decades, but in the past, December was traditionally the month when retailers charmed customers with window displays rather than hitting them with sales pitches. "The conventional wisdom was: Why mark things down at the height of the season? Then it became convention," said Adam Hanft, a branding and marketing consultant who writes about consumer culture.
Selling has become more aggressive and more democratic as retailers compete for fewer dollars. Steep — then steeper — discounts prevail throughout December. Even places like Home Depot and Lowe's that aren't traditional Christmas stores are in the mix. Every store tries harder to reach every customer — no more Target for you and Neiman Marcus for me (the odd couple teamed up this season to create a shared product line, available at either store).
The result: The percentage of people who said in October that they planned to take advantage of sales and buy for themselves during the holiday season has been climbing steadily from 51 percent in 2004 (when the question was first asked) to nearly 60 percent last year. During that same period, the percentage of people who said they'd be buying stayed steady for family (98 to 96 percent) but plunged for friends (80 to 71 percent) and co-workers (38 to 31 percent). The research was done by BIGinsight for the National Retail Federation.
Presents aren't quite so special when we're treating ourselves all year. Indeed, the whole concept of the holiday gift seems to have been ratcheted down a notch. Red flags: As the power of the gift-giving ritual weakens, we increasingly use convenient gift bags rather than wrapping presents by hand; we give gift cards (now available at the supermarket!) rather than selecting something personal; we off-load the whole transaction via online shopping, without even setting our eyes on the gift itself.
Many consumer-behavior experts say people feel more entitled to gifts than they once did. Marketers home in on this feeling and shopping symbiosis ensues. "People feel more deserving than they did, broadly," Hanft said. "Fifty years ago if you asked people, 'Is it appropriate to buy yourself a gift?' They would have said: 'Wrong.' Now a huge number says it's right. I think that's a sea change in values."
Kit Yarrow, a Golden Gate University professor of business and psychology, said marketers have "hammered home the point that: 'You deserve something.' For previous generations, gratitude had a bigger role in gift-giving. People's expectations of what they should have are different." In her book "Gen Buy," Yarrow focused on buyers in their 20s and teens and argued that the concept of giving yourself a present registers much differently for younger Americans.
Which is to say, it doesn't. "They've been exposed their whole life to this idea that you're special, you deserve it," she said.
The BIGinsight poll found that 72 percent of shoppers 18 to 24 said they planned to shop for themselves, compared with lower percentages as people age. Of people 55 to 64, for example, 50 percent said they planned to buy non-gifts during the holiday season.
In the past decade, advertising has increasingly reflected this. Last holiday season saw — in addition to J. Crew's "To: You, From: You" — the Gap's "Tuck Yourself In" and "One for you, one for me" from Starbucks. Such ads, said Yarrow, "became a mantra for everyone."
Shoppers like Pentagon City's Wyder-flowers are bombarded by conflicting messages about gift-giving. Piles of faux gifts and oversize checklists of people to buy for compete with ad campaigns like BCBG's "Have you been naughty or nice?" and Macy's "Treat yourself."
In the midst of it all last Friday sat Kat and Greg Payne, a young couple from Logan, Utah. They were taking a break from "gift-shopping" in the free massage chairs on the second floor. So far Greg, a 23-year-old brine shrimp harvester had two new baseball caps and Kat, a 22-year-old nursing student, had a new shirt.
"I needed a new hat but bought two. We went in and the guy was so nice. If it's a good sale, might as well," he said.
This is typical of our rationalizing when we self-gift. "Or we'll say 'I'll look better for my husband,' or 'This will make me happier, or a better cook.' We say to ourselves: 'By treating myself, I'm really helping others,' " said Paco Underhill, who has been writing about behavioral research and shopping since the 1970s.
Changing demographics have also played a role in the growth in self-gifting. Young working women with jobs, for example, are more likely today to be single and childless, meaning they have the freedom and resources to shop for themselves. More Americans in general are single, which retail experts say means they are less likely to get the gifts they want if they don't buy them for themselves.
That can lead to dark territory.
At their core, Underhill said, holiday gifts are the ultimate tokens of our feelings, physical representations of what we want to say to other people. I like you. I'm scared of you. I want to know you better. And he believes that our transient, often single culture can be a lonely one. We self-gift in order to say things to ourselves that other people aren't saying.
"We're looking," he said, "for little signs of self-worth we used to get from someone else."