The Why Behind the Buy

Understanding consumerism and why we buy

Why Holiday 'Self-Gifting' Is On the Rise

Shoppers increasingly say it's not always better to give than receive.

For many shoppers, there’s a new twist to an old adage this holiday season. It’s not always better to give than receive; sometimes it’s better to give to yourself. 

Self-gifting (otherwise known as adding your own name to your holiday shopping list) has been rising rapidly for several years. According to the National Retail Federation, the average of those honest enough to admit they plan to spend on themselves this year is $237. That’s a 27 percent jump in five years. For retailers, this is significant. Over 20 percent of the average shopper’s gift kitty is self-designated. In 2004 self-gifting accounted for only 14 percent of retail sales.

Here are five reasons why holiday self-gifting is on the rise:

1. It’s Pavlovian: The Holidays Trigger Sale Fever

At the start of the recession, retailers were caught off guard and left with bulging racks and stacks of holiday goodies. To cut their losses, they slashed prices to post-holiday clearance levels before Thanksgiving. Masses of retailers went under during the early years of the recession. Those that survived have been in a desperate battle for diminished consumer dollars. As a result, consumers have been treated to five solid years of spectacular discounting throughout the holiday season—not just to clear out unsold leftovers. 

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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 conditioned to associate the holidays with massive bargains.  Many shoppers are eagerly anticipating those bargains and have postponed fall purchases to cash in on sales.

2. The Malls are Decked and We Get New Ideas

The holidays get people into shopping malls. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas typically account for 20 percent of mall traffic. It’s a well-known fact 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 skimpy inventories of economy-wary retailers. Even when shoppers were browsing, there wasn’t much to see.

Not so during the holidays, when retailers bulk up inventories and add tempting special products. The malls are decked with gifts and tempting accessories, party clothes, decorations and electronics. These goodies sparkle more brightly in contrast to the relative austerity of the rest of the year.

3. It’s more socially acceptable to self-gift.

In an increasingly “me-centric” society, shopping for yourself while shopping for others is simply more acceptable. Messages of “reward yourself” and “you’re special” permeate society. 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. Humility, community and obligation have lost a bit of ground in today’s “all about me” world.

4. A Penny Saved Can Feel Like a Penny Earned

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, they spend that easily made money more frivolously. 

Joanne, a 30-something shopper I met outside of Macy’s last year, was delighted to have found the exact item her mother had requested for Christmas on sale. “I had planned to spend $70 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 spent well over the $70 she’d 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 a season of giving.

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 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, temperature fluctuations and heavy bags steal our focus away from thinking hard about budgets and the math calculations necessary to figure out multiple layer discounts. 

We’re also pre-wired to respond to excitement in crowds. It’s a psychological tool that kept us alive in caveman days. Today, that pre-wiring is more likely to make us want to snap up a completely unnecessary third television set just because everyone else seems to want one.

Kit Yarrow is a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

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