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Giving experiences as holiday gifts: Many shoppers want memories, not trinkets

A Dec. 4 survey by The NPD Group showed that 40 percent of consumers want to give experiences such as concert tickets and dinners instead of material items.

Shoppers walk past the Christmas Tree in the rotunda of the Shops at Liberty Place in Center City this month.
Shoppers walk past the Christmas Tree in the rotunda of the Shops at Liberty Place in Center City this month.Read moreTIM TAI

When discussing holiday gift-giving, Trish Sexton of Langhorne sounds a little like a Hallmark card.

"It's really about making memories," said the 48-year-old court reporter as she recently rolled through the bustling Shops at Liberty Place in Center City. "As opposed to a pile of clothes that they're not going to wear next year, you never outgrow your memories."

Sexton is putting her words into practice. This Christmas, she's giving her teenaged daughters and 12-year-old son tickets for pop star Taylor Swift at Lincoln Financial Field next summer and tickets to see the Broadway show Stomp this month at the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia.

"This is the first year that I am going with experiences rather than just material items," Sexton said. "We'll see how it goes."

Just as retailers are scrambling to offer the best in-store experience to attract customers, about 40 percent of shoppers this holiday season plan to give "experiences" as gifts, according to a Dec. 4 survey by the NPD Group, a global research firm.

Chalk it up to consumers wanting to be more adventurous, or memorable, but "experiential gift-giving" is "in" this year.

Food, ranging from dinners to wine tastings, topped the NPD survey list, with tickets to events coming in second. Next were spa certificates, travel, interactive experiences (like murder-mystery dinners), gym memberships, sightseeing tours, and adventure and educational experiences, according to the firm's 2017 Holiday Purchase Intentions Survey.

"Giving an intangible gift, an experience, can be more personal and more memorable for the gift recipient, and in many ways easier for the gift-giver, making them an ideal holiday gift solution for many consumers," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD, in a statement.

Also, 7 percent of shoppers plan to buy a subscription box or service. In this category, food subscriptions ranked highest, followed by beverages, electronics, health/fitness, fashion, and beauty/grooming subscriptions.

Retail experts say the zest for experiences may be a response to the toxic political environment and barrage of bad news.

"Many people are feeling overwhelmed by what seems like an unusually large number of tragedies, natural disasters, and political turmoil," said James Cook,  Americas director of research and retail at Jones Lang LaSalle. "When one gives an experience instead of an object, they are giving the gift of escape from the stresses of the world."

Retailers are creating "an environment that's almost an escape from reality," added Cook. "The best new retail stores and flagships create a little oasis away from the problems of the world."

Added David Gorelick, head of retail for the Americas for Cushman & Wakefield: "The younger generation places more interest on experiences like concerts, dining, and other events, consistent with what you're hearing.

"Now more than ever, brands in all sectors need to identify ways to connect with their client across all the different and emerging platforms and channels in a more meaningful, nuanced way," said Gorelick. "The ones that do will continue to be successful.", which ranks the best brands for in-store experiences, last month came out with its 2017 Retail Reputation Report, ranking the best brands for in-store experience on nine criteria at 28 national retailers. These criteria include value, service, wait times, cleanliness, convenience, product availability, staff competence, and parking.

The survey ranked the LEGO Store, Disney Store, Athleta, Lululemon, and Nordstrom as the overall top 5.

"While in-store shopping still accounts for 91 percent of U.S. retail sales, the pivot toward online shopping means that brick-and-mortar retailers have to find ways to deliver experiences that web outlets alone can't match," the report said.

Buying experiential gifts and subscription services this holiday season is strongest among Gen Z (born from the mid-1990s to mid-2000s) and millennial shoppers, according to the NPD report, as well as households with children and annual incomes over $75,000.

Gift cards are also popular among higher-income households and those with children.

Donna Dodderidge, 60, of Havertown, Delaware County, is giving Uber and Airbnb gift certificates to her three adult children, ages 20, 23, and 26.

Last year she got her kids Eagles tickets for the Sunday game after Christmas and all three dressed up in Eagles gear with hats, scarves, and sweatshirts. "They loved it and having a Christmas memory of being together,"  she said.

This year she said she's going for practicality.

"What they want for Christmas is money, but I don't want to give them money," said Dodderidge, who works in finance administration at St. Margaret School in Narberth. "I decided to get Uber gift cards at $50 apiece for my two boys. I know they'll use them, and they'll be safe. And I know my 26-year old daughter has to go out to California for a wedding, so I got her an Airbnb $200 gift card."

Dodderidge said she is also giving her children other gifts, including clothes and books.

Kathy Harold, 64, a caregiver from Southampton, Bucks County, admits she overdoes it at Christmas. Each person on her list gets 10 presents. Show tickets – like last year — will be included.

She's doling out tickets for Les Miserables at the Academy of Music in early January for six adults – including her two grown daughters. She's also treating her two grandchildren to Annie at the Walnut Street Theatre on Dec. 28. She plans to give out restaurant gift cards too.

"You think about what a fun time you had at a magic show, and not about the sweater that someone gave you," Harold said. "It's about quality time with the family. We're at the point of our lives where we can do things together and are able to go to a show together and go to dinner afterward."

For the women in his life, Ismale Williams, 43, a maintenance engineer who lives and works in Center City, is covering all the bases.

He said he is taking hints from his girlfriend and daughter on what to get them. He got a few items last week at the Shops at Liberty Place as he carried bags from Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works.

He wants to buy concert tickets for his 70-year-old mom in Baltimore, but "it all depends if I can get her up here," he said. Williams treated her to the show Motown last Christmas at the Academy of Music.

"She loved it," Williams said.