The No-Gift-Giving Contagion -- A Retailer's Worry

no gifts
People who have decided not to spend money on Christmas presents often talk about relief -- not only for their budget, but from the sense of obligation.
MPR Graphic/Bill Catlin

What's your Christmas budget? $500? $300? Are you cutting back?

How about down to, say, $5?

That's what 22-year-old Fiona Birch gave herself as a Christmas buying limit as she walked into a St. Paul Dollar Tree store.

Fiona Birch, St. Paul
Fiona Birch, 22, of St. Paul, says she will spend only $5 on her daughter for Christmas, and nothing for anyone else. It's all about negotiating the tough economic times.
submitted by Fiona Birch

That meant avoiding the latest fad toy or cool electronic gadget for her two-year-old daughter. Instead she concentrated on finding cartoon stickers and a balloon.

Ultimately she found a few items that cost a grand total of $3.22.

"I don't know what the state's complaining about, if I can budget, they can too," Birch said triumphantly at the cash register.

Gain a Better Understanding of Today

MPR News is not just a listener supported source of information, it's a resource where listeners are supported. We take you beyond the headlines to the world we share in Minnesota. Become a sustainer today to fuel MPR News all year long.

While her daughter gets these few gifts, no one else will. For the first time, Birch will buy no presents for her parents, her siblings and the rest of the family.

"I pay my student loan bill, rent, child care, food ... and I try to save as much as I can," Birch said.

So gift-giving is what goes. And when Birch told her family, there wasn't anger or sadness. Instead, they welcomed it.

"It's just a very difficult time for everybody and I don't think it's fair to put that kind of stress on everybody right now...."

"The rest of my family is in pretty rough financial straits as well, so they were all relieved. They said, 'You know what, we're not going to buy presents either.' I think I said what everyone else in the family was thinking."

This no-gift notion spread easily from Birch to the rest of her family. And that's the economic contagion that retailers are up against this year.

Overall retail sales fell for the fifth straight month in November, according to the latest report by the U.S. Commerce Department. And November's sales fell by about 9 percent compared to the same time a year ago. And that was with a decent bump from Black Friday.

People who have decided not to spend money on Christmas presents often talk about relief -- not only for their budget, but from the sense of obligation.

Take Corrine Livesay of White Bear Lake. She's a retired writer on a fixed income. Her son's carpentry business has slowed and her daughter's husband has lost work.

"It's just a very difficult time for everybody and I don't think it's fair to put that kind of stress on everybody right now," she said. "It is a stress. Because they feel they want to give you something back."

Jessica Sundheim, Fergus Falls
Jessica Sundheim's family will not buy Christmas presents this year to make ends meet. Instead they plan to refocus on family events to make the holiday special.
Submitted by Jessica Sundheim

Livesay is certain the family will stick to the no-gift-giving pledge, except for some small gifts for grandkids.

But consumers going cold turkey isn't the only problem for retailers, who would like to have shoppers in the store so they can make the impulse buy -- especially around the holidays.

Allie Moen has found spending discipline by shopping exclusively online. In the past, Moen did a bit of online shopping. But this year it occurred to her that buying online keeps her away from the "normal trappings of shopping."

"I can't see low prices and the other things that they do to get you to buy more," Moen said. "By shopping online, I am able to control my shopping completely."

But cutting out gift giving can cut both ways.

Jessica Sundheim of Fergus Falls has also decided that no one will get presents this year as she and her husband keep financially afloat. That means no gifts for her four girls.

That won't dampen the spirit, she said. Christmas Day has now become a rare moment when the two parents -- who work different shifts -- can have serious time with their children.

"This year we got two days off -- Christmas Day and the following day -- so we're actually going out to our favorite state park and were going to play in the snow and have fun," Sundheim said.

Sundheim said they are finding it easy to refocus family events and church functions, rather than on presents. But she faces some peril should too many consumers opt out of gift giving.

Sundheim works as a cashier at a retail outlet. She admits hoping others won't make the decision she has, and will continue to buy some gifts this season.

"I've heard other people say they were cutting back and I kind of cringe," she said.

Sundheim said there have been people in the store, a good sign. But the real question for her, and others in the retail business, is just how far this no-gift-giving contagion has spread.