A major driver of what retailers refer to as "self-gifting" is the tough economy, which has transformed holiday retailing. There have been Black Friday sales for decades, but in the past, December was traditionally the month when retailers charmed customers with window displays rather than hitting them with sales pitches. "The conventional wisdom was: Why mark things down at the height of the season? Then it became convention," said Adam Hanft, a branding and marketing consultant who writes about consumer culture.
Selling has become more aggressive and more democratic as retailers compete for fewer dollars. Steep — then steeper — discounts prevail throughout December. Even places like Home Depot and Lowe's that aren't traditional Christmas stores are in the mix. Every store tries harder to reach every customer — no more Target for you and Neiman Marcus for me (the odd couple teamed up this season to create a shared product line, available at either store).
The result: The percentage of people who said in October that they planned to take advantage of sales and buy for themselves during the holiday season has been climbing steadily from 51 percent in 2004 (when the question was first asked) to nearly 60 percent last year. During that same period, the percentage of people who said they'd be buying stayed steady for family (98 to 96 percent) but plunged for friends (80 to 71 percent) and co-workers (38 to 31 percent). The research was done by BIGinsight for the National Retail Federation.
Presents aren't quite so special when we're treating ourselves all year. Indeed, the whole concept of the holiday gift seems to have been ratcheted down a notch. Red flags: As the power of the gift-giving ritual weakens, we increasingly use convenient gift bags rather than wrapping presents by hand; we give gift cards (now available at the supermarket!) rather than selecting something personal; we off-load the whole transaction via online shopping, without even setting our eyes on the gift itself.