Secondhand Gifts and ‘Experiences’ Still Top Holiday Lists


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Once upon a time you might have been red-faced giving a secondhand sweater or a tin filled with homemade cookies for the holidays. It seemed out of step in a culture that pushes designer clothing, the newest action toys or S.U.V.s with giant red bows.

Of course, extravagant gifts still overshadow the humbler ones. But there are signs that more Americans are taking a quiet stand against materialism. Some are just embracing simplicity and rejecting clutter, while others want to avoid overspending and debt. Still others worry about environmental waste and climate change.

Whatever the reason, more people are giving and receiving used goods, making their own gifts, choosing “experiences” like cooking classes and travel, or even requesting charitable donations in their names or (gasp!) nothing at all for the holidays.

Nearly 190 million Americans shopped online or in stores over the Thanksgiving weekend this year, a 14 percent increase from last year, according to the National Retail Federation. Most bought new merchandise, with only 7 percent doing even part of their shopping in thrift stores, said J. Craig Shearman, spokesman for the federation.

But the preference for secondhand goods, homemade presents or experiences like going to the symphony or on exotic trips has continued to grow since 2016, when analysts began noticing the trend. Using online surveys of 1,700 shoppers in 2018, the market research firm Mintel found about a fifth of them agreed that “experience gifts” were superior to tangible goods. In 2019, a similar survey showed about half agreed with that.

Credit…Photographs Maridelis Morales Rosado for The New York Times

A different recent online survey found that roughly half the shoppers who responded would consider giving secondhand clothes and would also welcome such gifts. “That whole stigma of secondhand is waning or really vaporizing,” said Jill Standish, senior managing director for global retail consulting at Accenture, the consulting firm that conducted the research.

Industry watchers say these alternative forms of giving started out as a way to save money but have quickly evolved as a way to reflect other values.

One of those values: protecting the environment. Climate crisis warnings have more people picturing oceans filled with plastic and skies choked with smoke from textile mills in China. That clashes with images of presents lovingly wrapped in expensive paper under a live tree harvested and shipped from the countryside.

Eva Raposa, 37, a business strategist in Martha’s Vineyard, has told relatives that if they want to get her 8-year-old daughter a gift, they need to buy from the island’s consignment shops.

“I just started to feel very strange about how our relatives were lavishing my young daughter with items from overseas,” Ms. Raposa said. “It was fast fashion. It had love behind it, but to me it was junk.”

Credit…Maridelis Morales Rosado for The New York Times

And some say there is a sense that we have prioritized material possessions for our families and friends over something far more valuable: our time with them.

Michelle Murré, owner of a luxury travel agency in St. Helena, Calif., said that in the last two years, she had noticed her client base grow in the months leading up to the holidays. Consumers ask her to organize motorcycle treks through Marrakesh, romantic getaways to Tuscany and family hikes in the Caribbean that they can give as holiday gifts.

Clients are looking for “lasting memories versus the gift that might be the big wow for a week or a month but will be forgotten,” Ms. Murré said. “It’s a shared experience. They realize that these are the experiences that last a lifetime.”

Who benefits from the trend? We just mentioned luxury travel agents. And obviously secondhand shops are downright giddy.

Milo Bernstein, one of the owners of Ina, a group of four high-end consignment boutiques in New York, said sales at his stores used to drop off in November and December. That was when people stopped buying for themselves and began buying new retail for others.

In the last four years, sales those months have stayed steady or even ticked up, a sign people are using consignment for holiday shopping.

“Men would come in and say: ‘I want to buy a Fendi bag for my girlfriend. Do you have the original box because I don’t want her to think I didn’t get a new bag’?” Mr. Bernstein said.

No more. Customers are more likely to brag to their loved ones that they bought them secondhand gifts, he said.

“In some ways it’s even better because you’re contributing less to the world of waste,” Mr. Bernstein said.

The arts have also seen a boost. Bernadette Horgan, spokeswoman for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, said the organization sold 308 gift certificates in November and December this year, up from 253 during the same period last year and 196 in 2017. It is safe to assume those are mostly holiday gifts, she wrote in an email.

Yes and no. The Mintel survey showed that the majority of respondents who identified as millennials or members of the even younger Generation Z preferred experiences over gifts.

But 44 percent of shoppers who identified as Generation X and 40 percent of those who described themselves as baby boomers also said they would prefer the gift of an experience over something material.

“That shows to me there is a universal agreement to how consumers are prioritizing what matters to them most,” said Diana Smith, associate director for retail and apparel at Mintel.

And when it came to buying or receiving secondhand gifts, there was no difference in attitudes among the age groups surveyed by Accenture, Ms. Standish said.

More than half of the shoppers in that survey also said they wanted to know that products were made in sustainable or ethical ways.

Adriana Compagnoni, 53, was motivated by that desire in 2012, when she began making homemade presents from the honey and beeswax she collected from the hives she keeps in her backyard in South Orange, N.J.

“Maybe I was delusional, but I was pretty confident people would like it,” said Ms. Compagnoni, who also sells the homemade items at holiday pop-ups. “It’s not a trinket that’s going to end up in a landfill or cluttering their homes.”

Just look at the numbers. In 2018 the secondhand market in the United States brought in $24 billion. By 2023, that figure is expected to grow to $51 billion, Ms. Standish of Accenture said.

“This is where we’re going forward as consumers are shopping more with their values and with social consciousness,” Ms. Smith of Mintel said. “It’s kind of moved beyond a trend. It’s just more a lifestyle choice and a reflection of how we’re living our lives. People are defined more these days not by what they own but what they value, and their buying habits are reflecting that.”

Still, she said, consumers need to consider whether it really is socially responsible to give luxury travel packages and restaurant gift certificates as presents, considering the carbon footprints of air travel and discarded food.

“If you think about it, emphasizing experiences can lead to more waste,” Ms. Smith said.


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