Experience counts in holiday gift giving

Since opening a spa with heated marble floors and buttery leather furniture last month, the 61-room Herrington Inn in Geneva has sold about 1,000 gift certificates to the inn's pampering provider.

Of those, Sherie McGowan bought five as Christmas gifts for friends.

"It gets to the point where you ask yourself, `Did I already get this friend a throw?'" explains the 50-year-old owner of Cocoon, a home furnishings shop in Geneva.

"At my age group, we're either downsizing or we have a lot of things already."

The National Retail Federation, which represents such brick-and-mortar merchants as Sears, Roebuck and Co., Federated Department Stores Inc. and J.C. Penney Co., expects holiday sales to rise 5.7 percent this year. It would be the biggest growth rate since 1999.

But non-retail businesses--including spas, minor league baseball teams, speed-dating services and balloon-ride hosts--want their share of the Christmas dollar, and are touting the present potential of their experiences.

Shoppers are increasingly receptive to their pitches, too, figuring that their loved ones are working longer hours and need to escape, or that their furniture is already groaning under the weight of knickknacks and other presents from seasons past.

In fact, according to the American Express Retail Index, 29 percent of shoppers plan to give "experiential gifts" this holiday season.

That's a sharp increase over 2000, when 12 percent said they'd give such presents.

"There's no question that a lot of those gifts are special because consumers say they have everything else they want," said Britt Beemer, chairman of the consumer behavior research firm America's Research Group Ltd.

Other factors: the absence of a "hot" Christmas gift this year; tougher return policies; and the fact that receiving an experience as a gift is like getting two presents--the actual gift certificate and the service itself.

If the National Retail Federation is concerned, it's not showing it.

"It's a pretty big pot," said spokeswoman Ellen Tolley, referring to Christmas spending.

"Retailers know they lose a little when people give restaurant gift certificates and spa gift certificates," she added.

Chicagoan Pam Bertucci's Christmas gift to her 11-year-old niece from Oswego will be tickets to a Blue Man Group show.

"She'll be coming to the city and spending the night," said Bertucci, 27.

Last Christmas Bertucci bought her niece PlayStation 2 games.

This year Bratz dolls were on the girl's wish list, but "I'm trying to get away from more materialistic presents," said the technical writer.

"I also bought my dad a gift certificate for a restaurant so he can spend time with me and also get a gift as well," Bertucci said.

Last year she bought her dad a bottle of gin and a pair of socks for Christmas.

Spas, restaurants and theaters aren't the only businesses raiding conventional retailers' turf. Here are a few examples of some others:

Speed-dating services: HurryDate, which holds events in Chicago, Schaumburg and 63 other U.S. cities, introduced gift certificates in November 2002.

To date, the New York-based service, which gives singles the chance to go on three-minute "dates" with 25 prospects in one night, has sold about 1,000 at prices starting at $30.

Around Thanksgiving, HurryDate sent e-mails to past participants reminding them that gift certificates are an option.

"By this Christmas, we project that 50 percent of the gift certificates that we've sold for the entire year should be the result of holiday shopping," said Ken Deckinger, HurryDate chief executive officer.

- Skydiving, balloon and glider rides: "About 90 percent of our business is at Christmastime," said Rob Wilkinson, president of Soaring Adventures of America Inc., of Wilton, Conn.

Soaring has 200 pilots nationwide, including Chicago, and is running holiday-themed ads in 90 U.S. newspapers.

In 1980, Soaring Adventures sold about 2,000 rides. Five years ago, it was selling about 9,000. This year's forecast: 18,000.

"Everyone is working so hard that they're looking for exciting things to do," Wilkinson said.

- Cosmetic surgery: "There's been a dramatic increase in plastic surgery," Chicago plastic surgeon Jay Pensler said. "You usually see husbands or boyfriends giving it to a woman as a gift."

He noted that liposuctions, breast augmentations, and facelifts are the most common surgeries given as gifts.

- Minor league baseball tickets: The Kane County Cougars, a minor league affiliate of Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics, is running newspaper ads suggesting tickets as holiday gifts.

"We've been doing it for the last five to seven years but have stepped it up the past three or four," said Jeff Sedivy, general manager of the Geneva-based team.

"We traditionally sell 4,000 to 5,000 tickets during the Christmas holiday, and we do a lot of gift certificates."

- Undesignated gift cards: Visa USA in July 2002 introduced its Visa gift card, which can be used not only at traditional stores but also to buy vacations, event tickets or dinner.

Last year, six banking companies sold the card, a number that has grown to 40 this year.

- Cooking classes: Wooden Spoon, a year-old Chicago shop offering cooking classes and gourmet kitchen products, last week had gift certificates printed up for those wanting to buy cooking classes.

"We've sold about 20 of them," owner Trina Sheridan said.

- Spa certificates: Chicagoan Monica Weaver was in an experience-giving state of mind in November when shopping for a birthday gift for her 10-year-old niece.

Weaver considered buying American Girl products, but instead decided on an outing to Kiva, a Chicago spa.

The manicure and pedicure was capped off by brunch at the Signature Room on the 95th floor of the John Hancock building.

The information technology business analyst, 30, can't recall what she bought her niece last year. "Probably a doll," she said.

"But I'll remember next year what I got her this year."