Retailers look for growth among self-gifters

New York TimesNovember 29, 2013 


Bob Kissell, who will be buying gifts for himself during the holiday season, checks online for bargains with his wife Nina in Nags Head, N.C., Nov. 23, 2013. Self-gifters like Kissell, who take advantage of frenzied holiday sales to buy a few things for themselves, have been growing in numbers and dollars spent, becoming attractive targets for retailers.


Even the most clueless and bumbling gift-giver probably knows that it is not a good idea to give wrinkle cream, an electric toothbrush or a vacuum cleaner to anyone for Christmas or Hanukkah.

“Great Savings for the Holidays on Bissell,” said the home page this week.

The Estée Lauder Anti-Wrinkle Essentials Value Set was a “gift of the day” on the holiday beauty page. Among the site’s other head-scratching holiday deals: $50 off a Sonicare electric toothbrush. (Down to $129.)

All were aimed at a particular type of holiday shopper: the self-gifters – people who cannot resist taking advantage of the frenzied seasonal sale wars to buy a few things for themselves. (Those “buy one, get one free offers” are particularly potent bait.)

Even the classic gift of affection for others – jewelry – is fair game, and retailers know it. Under the banner Black Friday Jewelry Deals, Macy’s website coaxed: “This holiday season, get an unforgettable gift for a loved one (or yourself). Black Friday jewelry is a go-to choice for the ultimate present under the tree.”

Studies show that since the recession, and even a year or two before, self-gifters have been growing in both numbers and the dollars they spend. Perhaps these shoppers have reasoned that big sales offer the only legitimate excuse to spend for themselves – or in years when their finances were improving, they were finally able to ease up enough to splurge on something.

Whatever the motivation, they’ve become a special demographic niche that retailers depend on heavily, so much so that many preholiday shopping surveys now track them.

A slack in indulgence

But some recent surveys suggest this year that these shoppers may be a feeling a little less indulgent – a worrying prospect for companies heading into a season filled with uncertainty and weak sales projections.

Prosper Insights & Analytics, a consumer intelligence firm that conducts surveys on holiday spending for the National Retail Federation, for example, found that a smaller share of holiday shoppers planned to take advantage of discounts to buy “nongift items” for themselves or their family this holiday season, compared with last year or the year before.

Given that impulse-buying promotes self-gifting, retailers will be doing everything they can this year – overtly, subtly and even subliminally – to tempt people to be more like Robert Kissell of Nags Head.

Kissell, 25, is an incurable self-gifter. When the stores opened Thanksgiving night and Black Friday morning, he was on the chase for a 60-inch LED smart TV at Walmart, a slow cooker at Ace, an Android tablet at Kmart and a whole bunch of Blu-ray discs at Target.

He plans to keep every one for himself.

Kissell hastens to add that he has a wife, parents and others for whom he is also plotting to buy great presents. But the reality is that the number of people on anyone’s gift list – and the general amount they will spend on each – simply doesn’t vary that much from year to year.

An appeal to frugality

For retailers, the potential for growth is greater with self-gifters because personal wants or domestic needs know fewer limits. And they can be justified as a smart household budget move.

Hence the vacuum cleaner strategy – or as Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at NPD Group, a research and consulting firm, describes it, promoting items that really aren’t gifts.

“How many people are you going to buy a big-screen TV for?” asked Cohen. “That item is not necessarily a gift-giving item.” Retailers, he said, “create it so the price point is so attractive” that it is very easy to rationalize buying it for yourself or even as “a family gift.”

“You are doing yourself a disservice if you don’t wait to see what’s available,” Kissell said. “The discounts really are worthwhile,” he continued, adding, “I would never buy a TV the other 10 months of the year.”

Consequently, stores and e-commerce sites are rife with big-ticket holiday promotions like this one from BestBuy this week: “Black Friday Prices Now on Major Appliances.” Among the deals, holiday shoppers could save $400 on a Samsung steam washer-dryer.

Convince enough consumers to make big purchases like these, and it can mean the difference between a good and a disappointing holiday season, some analysts say.

“I think retailers, really, if they look at self-gifting correctly, holiday is obviously a season where they’ve got a lot of shoppers coming through stores, so if they can get shoppers looking at other merchandise, they can definitely entice those self-gifters,” said Pam Goodfellow, the consumer insights director at Prosper.

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