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Retailers' sly message: get yourself a gift, too

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.
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Retailers' sly message: get yourself a gift, too

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 Amazon.com home page this week.

The Estee Lauder Anti-Wrinkle Essentials Value Set was a "gift of the day" on the Macys.com 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."

A number of 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.

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, N.C.

Kissell, 25, is an incurable self-gifter. When the stores open Thanksgiving night and Black Friday morning, he will be on the chase for a 60-inch LED smart TV at Wal-Mart that he says will be on sale for $688, a slow cooker at Ace ($15), an Android tablet at Kmart ($39) and a whole bunch of Blu-ray discs at Target.

He plans to keep everyone 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 - is, in economists' terms, fairly inelastic. It simply doesn't vary that much from year to year.

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.

Olivia Mata, 32, of suburban Chicago, doesn't set out to buy for herself during the holiday season, but she says she often ends up succumbing to temptation. Some offers, she said, make it easy.

The other day she was buying tops for her sister and sister-in-law on HauteLook.com. Spend $100 and you get free shipping, the site said. So she happily grabbed two tunic sweaters for herself to put her over the top.

Similarly, RuLaLa.com, a subscription fashion site, offered 30 days of free shipping; the clock starts with your first purchase. Consequently, Mata said, "I visit that site on a daily basis."

"I peruse of course with the intention of purchasing for someone else," she continued, "but I find it's easy to buy for myself."

In New York the other day, the windows of the Macy's flagship store were in full holiday dress recreating the "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" story. Inside the store, red placards dangled from the ceiling, suggesting to shoppers that the point wasn't exclusively about giving: "Give. Get. Share."

On the makeup floor, similar signs beckoned with another mixed message: "Love it. Want it. Give it."

(Incidentally, Prosper's research of numerous big-name retailers has found that Macy's customers are the most likely to self-gift, Goodfellow said.)

Across the street at Sephora, the makeup and beauty products retailer, brightly colored signs announced, "Giftopia, Our merry crazy gifting holiday."

Cohen said makeup was another area with big holiday promotions. But he noted that, with the exception of fragrances, it holds far more allure as a self-gift than a real gift.

"Really," he said, "how many people are you going to give lipstick?"

© 2013, The New York Times News Service



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