CHICAGO—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.