Earlier this month, online coupon seller Groupon unilaterally declared a self-gifting day. “Everyone has been in the awkward position of opening a gift and wanting to throw it out the window or feed it to the dog,” the company announced. “Self-Gifting Day helps ensure that you get at least one thing you really want.”
You don’t think someone is going to buy you a massage? Buy it yourself. At a discount.
A trend barely acknowledged in polite company less than a decade ago, “self-gifting” is now a major part of our seasonal splurge. The National Retail Federation claims we will spend just under $127 of our holiday spending on ourselves. True, that’s only 15 percent of our total $804 bill. And, true, only 57 percent of Americans admit to doing it. But these might be conservative estimates. Another National Retail Federation study found more than three-quarters of the shoppers who braved the Thanksgiving weekend retail crowds picked up what the press release delicately termed “non-gift items” for themselves or others in their household. Marshal Cohen, the head retail analyst for the NPD Group, a market research company, told Reuters that he believes self-gifting accounted for almost one-third of everything bought over the first shopping weekend of the holiday season.
How could our holiday celebrations of gratitude and love turn into yet another exercise in self-indulgence? Well, it’s complicated. Self-gifting has almost certainly always been an unspoken part of the holiday season. But everything from changing cultural mores to shaky personal economics is allowing us to openly acknowledge a once-embarrassing practice.
A quick tour through LexisNexis shows there was barely a mention of seasonal self-gifting until the early part of the last decade. And when it came, condemnation soon followed. Buying yourself something special is not what the holiday season is supposed to be about, after all.
The British blamed the Americans for the disturbing new trend. “Self-gifting, as presented by those impossibly fickle Manhattan marketing gurus, has become the byproduct of a selfish society,” groused the Liverpool Post in 2004. Americans blamed generational cohorts. The Seattle Times turned to selfish, empty-nest baby boomers, flush with cash and looking for a material reward for raising their children. “They’re acting the way they’ve always acted,” the paper quoted a retail analyst as saying. Others blamed the supposed narcissism of the millennial generation. “Because they grew up at a time when society placed a stronger emphasis on caring about oneself, self-gifting seems more natural to them,” yet another analyst told Time in 2012.
Case closed? Not exactly. There’s another story we can tell about the rise of self-gifting, and it’s about our economy.
You probably don’t need me to tell you it was always considered acceptable to shop for yourself at after-Christmas sales. But those too-good-to-pass-up deals began to creep up into the period before Christmas in the wake of the 2000 economic downturn, meant to encourage purchases during hard times. In 2003, the Orange County Register noted the impact of seemingly too-good-to-be-true promotional sales on cash-strapped consumers. “Driven by year-end discounting, rebates, bargains, clearance sales and other inducements, shoppers are expanding the holiday gift-buying season into a season of personal acquisition,” the Register’s reporters wrote.
Retail analysts have long pointed out that the more retailers responded to economic pressures on their customers by offering high-discount markdowns and promotional sales, the more they trained would-be customers that the original price was for show. That, in turn, encouraged more self-spending during the Christmas season, because that’s when the blowout bargains occur.
And increasingly cash-strapped consumers couldn’t afford to resist the sales, even if they wanted to ignore the deals and concentrate on their loved ones. If you need new coat or microwave oven, why not wait to find the best price? It would be financial idiocy to do anything else.
Soon enough, major companies spied a trend. Like any good capitalist concern, they jumped on it. In 2007, Lexus ran an ad showing a silent man attempting to look cheerful while unwrapping a series of dreadful gifts, such as a giant calculator and a reindeer made of Christmas tree bulbs. He only perked up when an unseen narrator pronounced “there’s no law that states you can’t get yourself a little something,” before flashing to the man getting into a sport sedan covered with a big red bow. Other companies that have attempted to break into the self-gifting market include Zappos, J.Crew, and Starbucks, which, in 2011, offered up a “One for You, One for Me” deal on seasonally flavored lattes like as eggnog, peppermint mocha, and gingerbread.
Small business has not missed out. Just last week, the Toronto upscale men’s clothing store Gentil Uomo, which carries the sort of designer labels no one in financial stress should ever contemplate buying, tweeted out, “Don’t forget about yourself this Christmas…you’re totally worth it.”
No one is quicker to respond to these seeming contradictory messages than consumers under the age of 35, the demographic that according to surveys is the most likely to self-gift. For them, self-gifting might just be both self-indulgent and economically responsible. As the age of marriage and childbirth have risen, they’ve become less likely than in the past to have sons and daughters who wanted the latest, hottest toy. At the same time, they suffered in the latest downturn, with everything from high student debt loads and less-than-stable jobs all but forcing them to bargain hunt. In the view of W. Keith Campbell, the co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic, all this made them perfect self-gifters, people who would both seek to buy needed items on sale and take advantage of the opportunity to indulge when offered. In fact, the appeal of this sort of message to those without family responsibilities is likely international, as the sudden recent rise of China’s self-gifting Singles Day demonstrates.
But as Pam Danziger, president of the market research firm Unity Marketing, points out, most of us are susceptible to self-gifting messages. Buying less-than-necessary stuff is not a new. It’s that there wasn’t a term for the practice until recently. “In the Christmas shopping season, more people experience shopping than at any other time of the year,” she says. “It’s inevitable that people will pick things up for themselves.”
Viewed this way, the instinct to bash self-gifting is like any other moralizing personal finance trope: heaping scorn on men and women for behaving in entirely predictable ways. In fact, we’ve always been a nation of happy shoppers, with people eager to scold us for it. Look back at the history of how Americans celebrated Christmas, and you can find a pre–Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe complaining holiday gift-giving led to “worlds of money wasted”—in 1850.
So go forth and shop. Buy for your loved ones, and don’t forget to pick something up for yourself, especially if it’s on sale and you need it. But even if it’s as unnecessary as a Groupon beauty treatment, don’t judge yourself too harshly. Chances are your ancestors ordered an extra gewgaw or two from the Sears catalog. They just didn’t talk about it.