Time to be your own Santa Claus?

NEW YORK Tue Dec 4, 2012 10:46am EST

A shopper walks past a Christmas display after shopping in Somerville, Massachusetts December 23, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

A shopper walks past a Christmas display after shopping in Somerville, Massachusetts December 23, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - It's the season for eggnog, mistletoe - and the mad retail rush.

This year more Americans are forgoing shopping malls for their favorite websites. They are also buying what they want for themselves instead of waiting for someone to present it to them as a gift.

Shopping guru Paco Underhill is the founder of consulting firm Envirosell and author of several books on consumer behavior including "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping" and "What Women Want." He explains how and why consumption is changing in the United States.

Q. What's different about this holiday shopping season? A. Americans are very ready to come out of a recession, if the rest of the world would let us. We are tired of gloom and doom. Three years ago, conspicuous consumption was considered to be bad manners. People are tired of being restrained. More of us think: "If I have a job, I'm not as afraid of losing it as I was last year."

Some of us are doing just fine in this post-recession. The "haves" are back shopping.

Q. More of us are shopping online. What does this say about Americans - are we lazy, cheap or something else? A. Online shopping is female-friendly. But there's another side to this process - it's taken the cyber world by surprise and thrown the data mining community for a complete loop. The "retail therapy" women used to do at the mall is now happening online.

Retailers like eBay and Gilt are asking: Why is this woman looking at clothes but not buying? They don't realize that she's not there to shop; she's there to fantasize. Women are on these websites for two hours-plus at a time. Unlike going to the mall, you don't have to dress up, drive, park or put on lipstick when you look at eBay from the comfort of your bed on your iPad or iPhone.

Q. According to the National Retail Foundation, 20 percent of us buy gifts for ourselves when shopping for others. What's behind self-gifting? A. Many more Americans are living alone, particularly women who are single and later in their lives, who have pots of discretionary income. This is the time for so many of them to self-gift, to be their own Santa Claus. The thinking is: "If nobody else will give me what I want, I can buy it myself." That explains marketing strategies like the right-hand ring (which jewelers target to single women).

Q. How is social media changing the way we shop? A. The wholesomeness of social media is rapidly being corrupted. People believe things online more than when they read it in a magazine, but they shouldn't. At least magazines make some semblance of fact-checking.

We have given the Internet a naïve trust. We believe that the reviews we read and the personal recommendations we get are legitimate. We seldom question their authors. From Hotels.com to Amazon.com, the review process has been grossly misused if not thoroughly corrupted. When people start paying for positive comments or liking something, it's drastically wrong.

Neither of these two sites pay for reviews. However, public relations firms are arranging positive reviews for authors on Amazon.com. And authors are getting friends and family to write reviews.

Q. Where is your favorite place to shop? A. I am someone who tends to shop globally. I have favorite stores all over the world. If I ever turned up dead in a back alley, they'd be confused because my underwear, trousers and socks are all from different places.

I've worn almost exactly the same shoe for eight years. I like a variation of Ecco's slip-ons with elastic inserts. I could walk 10 miles in them.

I live my life out of carry-on luggage. I believe firmly in silk and cashmere and custom-made suits. Think: fewer, better things. The world is coming around to that. Fast-fashion is starting to fade, so the pundits tell me.

Q. Are you a deal hunter? A. I bought my first pair of Ecco shoes for 170 bucks, then two years later I was at ... (a DSW Inc store) and I found the same pair of shoes for $78. Two years after that, I was back at DSW, and I found a similar pair for $26. I've bought the same style, but from a different brand, ever since. How could I ever go back to paying full price for anything?

This is still one of the challenges of our culture. We are celebrating how little we spend for something rather than how much. With the power of our smartphones, the one thing we have access to is pricing. The merchant community - the brick and mortar stores - hasn't been able to figure out how to use that to their advantage.

Q. What's the biggest shopping mistake you ever made? A. I bought a male menopause car - an eight-cylinder Audi sports car. I drove it for two years. I woke up one day, and said, "What am I doing?" I traded it for a Nissan Rogue - which I drive twice as much because it's so much easier to drive. People will put you into a box if you drive a Subaru, Honda or Mercedes, but a Nissan Rogue? It's the most anonymous vehicle you can buy.

(Editing by Linda Stern and Matthew Lewis; The YOUNG BUCKS column appears monthly and at additional times as warranted; Lauren Young tweets at www.twitter.com/laurenyoung; Read more of her work at blogs.reuters.com/lauren-young)

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