We’ve all heard that it is better to give than receive. During the holiday shopping period, there’s a new twist to this old adage: With the rise of “self-gifting,” many consumers are clearly big fans of the idea of “giving” — to themselves.
The “self-gifting” trend, which has been gaining in popularity for years, will reach all-time highs this year. According to the National Retail Federation, the average shopper who is honest enough to admit they plan to spend on themselves over the holidays will drop $237 on “self-gifts.” That’s a 27% jump in five years. For retailers, this is significant. Over 20% of the average shopper’s gift kitty is expected to be self-designated in 2012. In 2004, self-gifting accounted for only 14% of retail sales.
Here are five reasons why holiday self-gifting is more popular than ever:
1. We know the sales are coming. At the start of the recession, retailers were caught off guard. Shoppers scaled back during the holidays of 2009 and 2010, and stores were left with bulging racks and stacks of holiday goodies. To cut their losses, they slashed prices, sometimes even offering merchandise at post-holiday clearance levels before Thanksgiving weekend. Retailers have been in a desperate battle for diminished consumer dollars ever since.
Consumers, meanwhile, have grown used to spectacular discounting throughout the entire holiday season, year after year. Just as we’ve been conditioned to associate the smell of pine needles and the sight of twinkling houses with the holidays, we’re now more accustomed than ever to associate the holidays with massive bargains. It’s been reported that roughly three-quarters of shoppers anticipate “great deals this season,” compared to 62% a year ago.
As more shoppers eagerly anticipate holiday-season deals, they have more reason to delay purchases for themselves that they would have otherwise made earlier in the fall, or perhaps even summer. Why buy a new big-screen TV in September or October when there’s good reason to believe one will be available at half the price on Black Friday?
2. The malls are decked with tempting self-gift items. The holidays drive people into shopping malls. The peak weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas typically account for 20% of annual mall traffic. It’s well-known that browsing leads to buying, and the more time someone spends in a store, the more money they’ll spend.
For many, the recession put the kibosh on browsing, and mall traffic sharply declined. This trend was magnified by the relatively skimpy inventories of economy-wary retailers. Even when shoppers were browsing, there wasn’t all that much to dazzle the imagination.
Not so during the holidays, when retailers bulk up inventories and add tempting special products. The malls are decked with gifts and accessories, party clothes, decorations, and electronics. These goodies—all arguably better to purchase for oneself than someone else, whose preferences you can’t gauge—sparkle more brightly in contrast to the relative austerity of the rest of the year.
3. Everybody’s doing it. In an increasingly “me-centric” society, shopping for yourself while shopping for others is simply more acceptable today. Messages of “reward yourself” and “you’re special” permeate society; today’s young consumers have come of age in a world where selfishness has been considered something of a virtue.
From the self-esteem movement in schools (emphasis on self) to marketing campaigns that lure buyers with “you deserve it” messages, society is awash with the glorification of the individual. It’s arguable that this atmosphere results in happier, more fulfilled individuals. It also means that a concept like “self-gifting”—which would have been laughed off in prior eras—makes sense to consumers. At the same time, humility, community, and obligation have lost a bit of ground in today’s “all about me” world.
4. A penny saved is a penny you can spend on yourself. In another new twist to an old adage, consumers can feel like they’re making money by spending money—when they purchase heavily discounted products. Worse yet, there’s a tendency to spend that easily “made” money quickly and frivolously.
Joanne, a 30-something shopper I met outside of Macy’s during the holidays last year, was delighted to find that the exact item her mother had requested for Christmas was on sale. “I had planned to spend $70,” she said, “but since it was only $35, I got myself these earrings and this perfume, which came with all these gifts. It was like Macy’s paid me to go shopping!” In fact, Joanne actually wound up dropping well over the $70 she’d originally planned to spend that day.
This is also a partial explanation of why shoppers tend to work harder on bargains for themselves than gifts for others. Bargain hunting is a way to rationalize self-gifting in what’s supposed to be a season of giving—to others.
5. We’re mentally vulnerable. Even when it’s fun, holiday shopping is also physically and emotionally stressful — and that drains resources from our brains to our bodies. In other words, it’s harder to think straight, and easier to make impulse and self-reward purchases when we’re holiday shopping.
Love it or hate it, no matter how you feel about holiday shopping, it taxes the psychological resources of even the most stoic shoppers. The physical requirements of dealing with things like crowds, dazzling light displays, bad weather, wish lists for friends and family, and even heavy shopping bags steal our focus away from thinking hard about budgets, as well as the unnecessarily complicated math calculations necessary to figure out multi-layer discounts that are ubiquitous during the holidays.
We’re also pre-wired to respond to excitement in crowds. It’s a psychological tool that kept us alive in caveman days—it was generally safer to stick with the herd. Today that pre-wiring is more likely to make us want to snatch up a completely unnecessary third television set just because everyone else seems to want one.
Kit Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named as the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y.