Merry Christmas to me!

Self-gifters increasingly stuff their own holiday stockings

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They say it's better to give than to receive, but They haven't been to the mall lately.

Americans are doing more and more holiday shopping for themselves, data over the past decade show, even as planned gift-buying for family members has stayed steady (sorry, friends and co-workers, your numbers are down).

The reasons are complicated, including a recession that's transformed what used to be a magical few days of strolling past Santa-themed window displays into a weeks-long, competitive fire sale. But experts on consumer psychology say a major cultural shift has been building: It has now become acceptable — even necessary — to give ourselves treats and rewards all year long. We're ripe for a new generation of ads like J. Crew's "To: You, From: You," or Bare Minerals' "What's your gift?"

Is the old-fashioned concept of the gift, that emblem of humility, in danger?

During a recent afternoon at the Pentagon City mall in Arlington, Va., one person after another first said they were there to buy holiday gifts for others, then sheepishly showed off their haul for Numero Uno.

"I was supposed to be holiday shopping," said Katrina Wyder-flowers, 47, as she carefully removed two big boxes from a bag next to her lunch table in the mall atrium and opened them. Out came a pair of blue leather boots, then a pair of mahogany ones, both with super-high heels. "I love a bargain."

Some retail experts call this "gift conversion" — the dance you do in your head when you wind up buying for yourself after ostensibly going out to shop for someone else. Economic, demographic and generational changes, they say, have had a Pavlovian effect. Americans hear "Christmas" and think "massive bargain-shopping for all the stuff I didn't get during the year."

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.

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).

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.

Many consumer-behavior experts say people feel more entitled to gifts than they once did. Marketers home in on this feeling and shopping symbiosis ensues. "People feel more deserving than they did, broadly," Hanft said. "Fifty years ago if you asked people, 'Is it appropriate to buy yourself a gift?' They would have said: 'Wrong.' Now a huge number says it's right. I think that's a sea change in values."

Kit Yarrow, a Golden Gate University professor of business and psychology, said marketers have "hammered home the point that: 'You deserve something.' For previous generations, gratitude had a bigger role in gift-giving. People's expectations of what they should have are different."