Out of the 'Cocoon' : Gift Givers Favor the Funky This Year

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What do aroma-therapy ointment, lawsuit games, coffee-stained T-shirts and gold-covered garlic have to do with anything?

They are among the hottest items on consumer shopping lists this holiday season, confirming the claim of pollsters that the American public is turning away from the practical after several boring years.

"Instead of giving a boring sweater, you want to give something people would never get for themselves," said Marcy Solomon of New York, who hopes her brother-in-law didn't get cuff links made out of compasses for himself.

Consumers are now said to be opting for the odd, unique or funky. Shopping centers in Southern California and across the nation are reporting a surge in demand for novel items. And some are as unusual as a gift-wrapped partridge in a pear tree.

Of course, traditional items are still popular--bikes, flannel shirts and jewelry among them.

But how to explain the line of shoppers waiting to buy $18 cloves of garlic encased in 18-karat gold at the Christopher Ranch gift and gourmet food shop at the Glendale Galleria? Or the run on foot-high gargoyles at Natural Wonders stores?

Why are customers at True Blue, a women's apparel store at Fashion Island in Newport Beach, assembling necklaces that announce "Expectant Mother" or make other customized statements, turning themselves into virtual automobile vanity plates?

The sudden demand for the novel reflects changing consumer attitudes, according to Yankelovich Partners, a polling company that conducts consumer research. During the "cocooning" trend of the last eight years, consumers favored domestic goods such as stereos, kitchen ware and home furnishings.

"During this period, people made the home the center of their lives," said Walker Smith, a Yankelovich partner. "Consumers were staying home and building a haven in an unsafe world. Now people are tired of feeling cut off. After eight years of denial, consumers are looking for gifts that put smiles on faces. They want items that stimulate a sense of curiosity and fun."

Holiday sales reports, generally poor as the season heads into the final weekend, tend to support these sweeping generalizations. For example, nationwide sales of home furnishings have declined 5% for the period Nov. 24 to Dec. 17 compared with the same period a year ago, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Apparel sales are down 3.8% and footwear has slipped 3%.

On the other hand, items that tend to be more personalized are faring better. For example, sales for the category that includes seasonal cards, books and specialty gift items have climbed 1.7%, said the shopping center council.

That spirit extends to toys for grown-up boys, like sales of Sharper Image's Saucer Launcher, a spaceship-shaped gun that fires soft disks. The company says many adult males are buying the toy for themselves. Others are buying the toy as a gift for men.

Maria Serna of Glendale, for example, bought four launchers for four nephews--one of them is 19 and another is 20.

"I've always purchased traditional gifts in the past," she said. "I thought this would be fun and different."

Meanwhile, "Sue You!"--a Monopoly-style board game substituting litigiousness for capitalism--is flying off the shelves. The game is over when one of the players is sued penniless.

The recipients of such gifts are not always people. For a friend's pet, Evelyn Mellman of Sherman Oaks bought a dog collar that resembles a tuxedo collar and tie.

"I don't want to give what everyone else is giving," she said.

Some business owners like to give offbeat holiday gifts to corporate friends. Elissa Leeds, president of the Los Angeles-based Reel Talent Management, is giving decorative business card holders made of antique wood and copper.

In holidays past, Leeds said she has had to commission artists to make special gifts. However, this year she said she found lots of unusual stuff right on the shelf.

"Many retailers anticipated this trend and they stocked their stores with more novel items this season," said Karen MacDonald, a spokeswoman for the Taubman Co., a Michigan-based firm that owns and operates the Beverly Center and 19 other shopping centers nationwide. "Those stores are doing well. We can even see the trend in apparel. Retro--clothing with stylings from the past--is strong."

Microwaveable gloves and socks--you heat them up in the microwave before putting them on--are hot in northern climes, said MacDonald.

Californians, by contrast, are more likely to buy "aroma-therapy" products.

One such ointment, "Peace of Mind On-the-Spot Relief," is designed to relieve stress when applied to the temples, forehead or neck. Shopper Mellman bought an aroma-therapy candle set that burns the scents of peach, vanilla and musk.

And at the KCET Store of Knowledge chain, Californians are clamoring for T-shirts that appear to be covered with coffee stains.

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