By Lauren Zumbach
The Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — Bridget Anderson likes to be creative when picking out holiday presents for friends and family. But finding the perfect gift for her mom was an annual struggle.
“She’s not super materialistic,” said Anderson, 26, of Chicago. “She would ask for practical things, like socks.”
Three years ago, she and her sister got their mom tickets to the musical version of Disney’s “Aladdin.”
The gift of a family night out for dinner and a show has been their tradition ever since. This holiday season, she’s also forgoing tangible gifts for her dad, who will get concert tickets. And instead of exchanging gifts with her boyfriend, they’ll take a trip in January to Mexico.
“It’s a nice Christmas gift to get to spend time together, and not just give meaningless stuff,” she said.
The holidays have always been important for retailers selling staple gifts like sweaters and toys. But a growing share of consumers are considering swapping stuff for gifts that let recipients explore a new hobby or enjoy a night on the town.
Businesses from cooking schools to theaters say they’re benefiting from interest in gifts of experiences, despite risks of giving presents that can be tough to return, not to mention challenging to wrap.
Half of consumers surveyed on their 2019 holiday shopping said they prefer experiences to tangible gifts, a trend that has been “up across the board” in recent years, said Diana Smith, associate director at market research firm Mintel, which conducted the survey.
Activities like dining out, traveling and entertainment are among the most common ways consumers say they’re spending discretionary money, she said. When Mintel asked consumers about their goals, one of the most popular answers was trying new things.
“There’s just a different mindset among consumers around how they’re living their lives,” Smith said.
Businesses from cooking schools to cultural institutions say that mindset change brings a boom in gift sales during the holidays.
December gift card sales at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago have grown 28% over the last five years, said marketing director Jay Corsi, though he attributes some of the growth to a promotion in recent years giving anyone buying a $100 gift card between Black Friday and Christmas an extra $20.
At Chicago Photography School, sales of gift certificates grew about 10% during last year’s holiday season compared with 2017, and could see similar growth this year, partner Nick Sinnott said. About 80% of all gift certificates sold are bought in November and December.
“We get a call or email at least every other day, if not once a day, from Thanksgiving through Christmas and Hanukkah,” Sinnott said.
Despite the boost it gives the bottom line, the holiday rush can be a challenge if recipients all try to use their gifts soon after celebrating.
January and February cooking classes at The Chopping Block are “crazy full,” said marketing manager Andrea Miller. “Gift cards are burning holes in people’s pockets.”
Nearly 60% of all gift cards sold at The Chopping Block’s locations Chicago’s North Side are purchased between October and December, she said. Classes often run between $60 and $100, though all-day and multi-day “boot camps” cost more.
Some gift-givers turn to experiences because they want to avoid buying stuff that might be quickly forgotten. But they’re also popular with last-minute shoppers because gift certificates for experiences often can be purchased online and printed immediately.
At Aloft Circus Arts, which teaches trapeze-flying and tight-rope walking, people tend to purchase gift classes in November or the week of Christmas, said Christine Conroy, manager of education programming.
“You’re either a planner, or you’re really last minute. There’s not a lot in the middle,” Conroy said.
Still, don’t expect a package-free holiday season anytime soon. Tangible items are still more common purchases.
“There’s a risk they might not like it or really use it. It might be easier or safer to get a tangible gift that can be easily returned,” said Mintel’s Smith.
But there is a risk the recipient simply won’t redeem an I.O.U. for an experience. People who want to give a show at the Chicago Magic Lounge in Ravenswood for the holidays tend to purchase gift certificates, which don’t require committing to a date, while those buying for a birthday or anniversary more often purchase tickets to a specific show and plan a night out with the recipient, said marketing director Cynthia Ferkol.
According to a 2018 survey by Consumer Reports, nearly 20% of Americans own three or more unused gift cards. Consumers with cards they hadn’t spent said they had $50 on average left on their cards, though it wasn’t clear how long they had gone unredeemed, said Consumer Reports communications director Barrie Rosen.
Others might worry the gift itself _ often a card describing the experience _ will be less exciting to unwrap than something that can be enjoyed immediately.
An item to go along with the experience can provide the best of both, said Shawna Huffman Owen, CEO of Huffman Travel.
She works with clients to plan the physical gift as well as the trip, which could mean wrapping a new carry-on bag containing a journal, postcards from places the family will visit, an item that might be useful on the trip and a book or movie featuring the destination.
“We’re still a material society, and we’re still visual,” she said.