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Lured by deals, shoppers treat themselves too

Gift-buying remains the number one priority during the holiday season. But some, lured by deals and perhaps a little tired of being frugal, are indulging themselves, too.
Christmas Eve Shopping
Holiday shoppers look for some bargains in New York. Last-minute shoppers are out in force, but most of the buying is done and presents wrapped.Mark Lennihan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Maria Prieto couldn't resist. Shopping for Christmas presents at a Gap Kids recently, she thought about that 25 percent off coupon she had. Why let it go to waste?

So the nurse from New Jersey did what industry analysts call "self-purchasing" — she bought something for herself. The turtleneck top and trousers from the grown-up Gap was just what she needed for work.

Many others are "self-purchasing" as well, some industry analysts say — in surprising numbers. Of course, gift-buying remains the number one priority this time of year, and it gets more frantic as the days go by. But some, lured by deals and perhaps a little tired of being frugal, are indulging themselves, too.

"I haven't seen anything like this before," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group, who's been out at stores talking to customers, and whose firm conducts internal surveys. "More people are buying for themselves this season than at any time [in] the past decade, when we started asking the question."

‘Things seem more secure financially’
That's not surprising to a shopper like Kimmilyn Vu.

Shopping recently for friends' gifts at the Valley Fair mall in San Jose, Calif., she found herself gravitating from Sephora, where the line was out the door, toward Baker's, where she picked up a pair of shoes for about $70 — 20 percent off the original price.

"I'm a girl who loves shoes," says Vu, 31, who recently launched her own personal styling company. "Besides, there are so many amazing deals, you can't help NOT buy things." Were the shoes her only self-purchase this season? "Well, no. I like dresses," she allows. "I bought five of them." Accessories? Yup, some of those too — although everything was pretty much a bargain. Grand total: About $500.

Vu says she felt more comfortable shopping this season than last — for others, as well as herself.

"Things seem more secure financially, and I think everybody has a better idea of where the economy is going," she says. "After a year of fear, people are saying, hey, I survived. I have a little more to spend, and to give."

Analyst: Consumers mostly stick to sensible items
Cohen, the retail analyst, says internal surveys show that in a normal, healthy economy, 26 percent of holiday shoppers buy for themselves as well as others. Last year, his firm found in online surveys that 19 percent were doing so; this season, he says, the number is 41 percent.

He attributes the phenomenon partly to what he calls "frugality fatigue."

"Consumers tell me they're buying one item as a gift and maybe one or even two for them," says Cohen. But he adds that often the purchases are sensible ones — like a washer-dryer, on sale.

"You're probably not going to buy someone on your gift list a washer-dryer," he says. "But if you see it, it's on sale and it's something you need, you're gonna grab it."

A number of stores and malls report that people are buying themselves outerwear, especially on the East Coast given the recent cold weather. "People are buying themselves boots, coats, hats and gloves," says Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman at national mall operator Taubman Centers Inc., who polled individual mall managers.

But not all "self-purchases" are so practical. For example, the ones at jewelry stores.

In Short Hills, N.J., for example, jewelry stores at malls report that people are buying well-priced diamond pendant earrings both as gifts and for themselves at the same time, says MacDonald. The same thing has been seen with brand-name scarves or electronics. "It's surprising, because usually there is such focused, serious gift shopping this late in the season," MacDonald says. "That still is the main focus, but there is indeed significant self-purchasing."

Focus is still on gifts
Of course, some folks remain purely focused on gifts — either for economic reasons or because they're simply better at avoiding temptation.

One of them is Jennifer Wilson of Denville, N.J., also a nurse and sister-in-law of Prieto, who made the Gap purchase recently. The two women met up in Manhattan for some sightseeing Wednesday along with Jennifer's sister, Patricia, and other family members.

"I always buy for other people," says Wilson. "Ninety percent of the time, I'm not tempted. Maybe if it's buy one, get 50 percent off on the other, maybe I'll suck it up and get one for myself. But that doesn't happen too often."

Luckily, too, because this year Wilson had to buy Christmas gifts for her own three kids, seven nieces and nephews, four siblings, four aunts and uncles and maybe a few more.

George Lopez, on the other hand, jokes that for every gift he's bought someone else, he's bought himself "a gift and a half" this season.

"The problem comes in when I start to browse for myself when I'm at a store," says Lopez, 23, an accountant from Yonkers, N.Y. "I start buying things on impulse, things like shoes, skin care, and clothes."

"The temptation to shop is there year-round," says Lopez. "But it's always much worse during the holidays, because other people's shopping is infectious."

You could say Zachary Weiss shares the enthusiasm. The 17-year-old from Avon, Conn., woke up at 4 a.m. on Black Friday to sample some of the most extreme deals. "I saved $60 or $70 on a Ralph Lauren sweater," says Weiss, who does public relations work when he's not at school, where he's a senior.

"I always set out to shop for others," Weiss says. "But there wasn't much jumping out at me this time — other than for myself."