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December 19, 2012

Self-gifters increasingly stuff their own holiday stockings

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, Md., 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."

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