The tea leaves of holiday giving

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When it comes to gifts, regardless of the season, there’s no question that the age old saying “it’s the thought that counts” rings true. But this holiday season, it looks like gift-giving might actually be back in fashion after taking a hiatus the last few years. And from what we can see, shoppers aren’t skimping on presents for others or themselves!

Thanks to a shaky economy, gift-giving has varied greatly from year-to-year since 2008.  At the end of 2008, when we first entered into our recession, consumers had to think fast, and think twice, about how to approach spending during the holidays. Spending on gifts from 2007 to 2008 decreased more than eight percent. And in 2009, it was more of the same as the “holiday season of the serious bargain hunter” heated up a competition for customer dollars. By the end of 2010, retailers saw signs of improvement in the economy and in consumer spending, with many holiday shoppers starting to feel comfortable buying gifts like jewelry and electronics again – items that had taken a back seat to more personal and practical items. In 2011, retailers entered the holiday season optimistic that consumers would take advantage of their promotions, and they were right as gift budgets increased across the board.

This year, it looks like shoppers are growing their shopping lists. According to NRF’s 2012 holiday spending survey released in October, a few signs point to a very healthy return to gift-giving:

  • Looking to trim their budgets in 2008, 2009 and again in 2011, consumers this year plan to spend more on gifts for friends. The average person buying gifts for their ”besties” will spend $104, up from $97 last year.
  • Pets, babysitters, postal workers and other community acquaintances stand to benefit more this year too. The average person will spend more than $63 on some of the most important people  – and pets – in their lives, up from $56 last year.
  • And apparently there are a few co-workers out there who can expect something special this holiday season too – spending on them will grow to more than $73, up from $69 last year.

One type of gift that hasn’t changed in recent years is the “self gift.” Our research shows that millions of people plan to take advantage of retailers’ holiday sales and promotions to buy non-gift items for themselves or their family. Do you really think people are standing in line at midnight to buy discounted 55″ televisions for their children, or their parents? Highly unlikely.

This year:

  • Six in 10 Americans say they will take advantage of the discounts over the next few weeks to purchase non-gift items.
  • Spending on these “self gifts” will reach $140, the most in the survey’s 10-year history. In 2004, that figure was a mere $89.
  • Over Thanksgiving weekend, eight in 10 holiday shoppers said they planned to scoop up some great online and in-store deals Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

So what are people buying this holiday season? A lot of everything.

In mid-November we asked people what kinds of gifts they had already bought. A few key items stand out:

  • Gift cards reign as the most requested and the most purchased gift item. Shoppers today recognize that gift cards are both personal and practical. NRF’s gift card survey found that eight in 1o will buy at least one gift card, perfect for the six in 10 who requested them. And, over Thanksgiving weekend, nearly one-third of all shoppers said they bought gift cards.
  • Toys are hot once again. The emergence of Furby and hot electronic kids toys may have helped boost the percent of people looking for toys this year – 45 percent plant to buy toys, up from 43 percent last year.
  • Nearly six in 10 will buy clothes and accessories – the most since 2006. Retailers have created buzz this holiday season with their exclusive labels and product offerings, helping drive people straight to the cashmere sweaters, winter coats and other apparel fashions.

There may be no direct connection to whether or not gift-buying indicates how people really feel about their finances or the holiday season, but one thing is for sure this year – holiday shoppers are in the mood to celebrate with their loved ones, and a few perfect gifts could go a very long way in making this a holiday to remember.

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