NEW YORK -- Getting up early on Black Friday for a little shopping? Doing your part on Small Business Saturday and CyberMonday, too? It's all in the name of gift-giving -- or at least the guise of it.
It seems a lot of consumers are using these sales and retail events to treat themselves to a new little something.
As a group, self-shoppers are growing, says Marshal Cohen, chief analyst of The NPD Group, Inc., a consumer insight company. He puts the number at 20 percent, up from 5 percent in the early 2000s.
"I started tracking people shopping for themselves about 10 years ago. I was at a Black Friday in a Macy's in a suburban location in Long Island," he recalls. "This woman has one arm filled with a few things, maybe a dress and a few sweaters, and another with 12 items."
Guess which hand had the future presents for her two sisters and a friend?
It's a similar scene in Loft stores already this year, says Lori Leslie-Robbins, director of client experience for the retailer. "For us, the telltale sign that someone is shopping for themselves is that our fitting rooms stay busy for the holidays. She's trying clothes on, and you don't need to do that for a gift."
Leslie-Robbins overheard this past weekend a conversation between a sales associate and customer in the dressing room that went something like this: The shopper was in the dressing room choosing between a dress and a tuxedo-jacket-and-denim-jeans combo, and was taking seriously this choice of what to wear to a co-worker's at-home holiday party. When the associate asked if she'd also considered a hostess gift, the response was, "I'm not there yet."
Because of the deep discounts, shoppers see this as an opportunity to replenish their own wardrobes and homes with less guilt than buying the new pair of jeans, for example, at full price, Cohen says. Those same shoppers might not feel that way about a gift for someone else.
He says especially the early-bird holiday shoppers are looking for the sales for themselves, while the transactions made closer to Christmas are more likely to be bona fide gifts. He can also tell by what you're buying: If it's electronics or footwear, it's probably for you; fragrance is a go-to gift item, with 20 percent of annual sales happening in the five days before Christmas, according to NPD.
Rachel DiCarlo is a fan of the one-for-me, one-for-you theory.
Jewelry and scarves, perfectly good gifts for others, are also the items she tends to buy for herself. Last year, she couldn't resist the initial necklaces she was buying for so many others. "I was getting the Ls, the Js, and I thought, 'I should buy an R.'"
She is the vice president of public relations at American Eagle Outfitters and, in her office, everyone tends to dress similarly. So, she says with a laugh, it makes sense to get for herself the shirt or accessory she is getting for the members in her team -- although, everyone gets a different color. (Spoiler alert to her near and dear: Colorful AEO clutches with sayings such as "Adorbs" and "Stay Chic" -- which you might see DiCarlo carrying in the coming days -- might be under your tree, too.)
Many of the self-purchases Loft's Leslie-Robbins sees in stores are those that solve problems or have a focused end use -- those tend to alleviate that pang of guilt, she says.
A woman needs to buy herself the items no one else will buy her, right? muses Robin White, global press director of beauty brand Philosophy. There's also "the stuff you need" and "the stuff you enjoy buying."
She takes pleasure, for example, in a new tube of eye cream -- it really makes her day, she says, but it's not quite what she'd want to unwrap Christmas morning. That makes it the perfect self-purchase.
Conversely, White adds, "It's a luxury when you get a new lip gloss or fragrance, and that's why those make such popular gifts." She'd also put body lotion and makeup palettes in the present category, while anything that says "anti-aging" is not.
Retailers need to adapt to the new holiday shopping dynamic, NPD's Cohen says. It's not just about glitzy limited-edition giftables, which don't require much inventory. They'll need to start to devote more space to the things they sell year-round, including apparel and beauty basics, sporting goods equipment and athletic gear.
"It's almost like the impulse item is the gift, but the mission is for themselves," he says. "Many do take opportunity to buy gifts that are there while they're out there in the stores, but the early holiday shopper is more self-centered."