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 last decade show, even as planned gift-buying for family members has stayed steady.

The reasons are complicated, including a recession that has 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 bareMinerals' "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, Va., one person after another first said he or she was there to buy gifts for others, then sheepishly showed off a haul for Numero Uno.

"I was supposed to be holiday shopping," said Katrina Wyder-Flowers, 47, as she removed two big boxes from a bag next to her lunch table. 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" - when you wind up buying for yourself after ostensibly going out to shop for someone else. Americans hear "Christmas" and think "massive bargain-shopping for all the stuff I didn't get during the year."

A driver of what retailers refer to as "self-gifting" is the tough economy, which has transformed holiday retailing. There have been Black Friday sales for decades, but in the past, December was the month when retailers charmed customers with displays rather than hitting them with sales pitches. "The conventional wisdom was: Why mark things down at the height of the season?" said Adam Hanft, a branding and marketing consultant.

Selling has become more aggressive and more democratic as retailers compete for fewer dollars.

The result: The percentage of people who said in October that they planned to take advantage of sales and buy for themselves has climbed steadily.