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Consumer Psychology

Shopping for Someone You Really Love: Yourself

Shopping for Someone You Really Love: Yourself

Illustrations by Jiro Bevis

Remember that old yuletide saying, “It’s better to give than to receive?” For retailers, self-indulgence is a godsend. With the economy showing slow but steady signs of improvement, so-called self-gifting is becoming a crucial part of revenue growth. A record 6 in 10 people say they will shop for themselves during the holiday season, according to a survey in early October by the National Retail Federation. That’s up from about 50 percent in 2004.

The Federation and researcher found that U.S. shoppers plan to spend an average of $140 on themselves this holiday season. That would be the highest amount spent on self-gratification in the 10 years the NRF has conducted the survey. It’s also roughly a fifth of the $749.51 the average consumer plans to spend on gifts and holiday goods this year, according to the survey. In fact, without the uptick in selfishness, last year’s holiday sales would have been flat, says researcher NPD Group. “Anyone who wants to pooh-pooh self-gifting, then forget growing Christmas,” says NPD analyst Marshal Cohen. Stephen Bebis, chief executive officer of gadget chain Brookstone, says “self-gifting has always been around, but it’s getting more important.”

Many retailers and brands are aware of the phenomenom, but they’re only just beginning to tap the market. Last year carmaker Hyundai Motor ran ads encouraging people to “give yourself a gift”—a car. Apparel chain J.Crew urged visitors to its website to “Gift Yourself.” This year online retailer has a “Gifts for Yourself” page in its online holiday gift guide.

There’s also marketing that doesn’t blatantly promote self-indulgence, but gives shoppers a nudge in that direction. The Lexus (TM) ads of recent years that featured a car topped with an enormous red bow being presented by a husband to a wife reminded some viewers of the Simpsons episode when Homer gave Marge a bowling ball.

The ad speaks to another consumer trend: More Americans are postponing personal purchases to the end of the year. “We never thought of cars and footwear as holiday gifts, and they are both big holiday gifts now,” says NPD’s Cohen. Self-gifting has also gotten a boost from the Internet, which makes it oh-so-easy to pop something into your cart for yourself while shopping for others.

Although luxury chain Neiman Marcus doesn’t directly promote to self-gifters, chief marketing officer Wanda Gierhart says it’s a significant part of the season and that she totally gets it: “I think everyone does it a little bit,” she says. “I know that’s the way I shop. It’s one for me, one for you.”

The bottom line: Self-gifting is on the upswing. Without it, Christmas retail sales would have been flat last year.

Townsend is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York.

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