Gift-buying patterns change as Americans weather a winter of economic discontent


December 13, 1990|By Holly Selby

The biggest presents exchanged on Christmas Day at the Butehorn residence in western Howard County will be gifts of time: Instead of celebrating with high-ticket items, family members will play games, walk in the country and prepare Christmas dinner as a group.

And they've decided to resurrect an old family custom, that of spending the night under the Christmas tree in sleeping bags, says Ellie Butehorn, the mother of six grown-up children and director of marketing at Savage Mill.

"The gas prices rising contributed to our decision [to give simpler gifts], but it was also dictated by our need to be with one another and share quality time. Our youngest child moved to California, budgets are tight, the overall economy of the country is tight, all of this contributed," she says. "But it's funny that we need an excuse to celebrate simply."

In the midst of a season fraught with gloomy financial forecasts, many families like the Butehorns are turning to simpler, less material ways of marking the holidays. Across the board, consumers are trimming budgets and tightening belts: Two recent national polls indicate that one-quarter to one-half of Americans plan to buy less this year. And Fabian Linden of the Conference Board, a New York agency which measures consumer confidence, predicts that seasonal retail sales may be down nearly 5 percent.

Still, Americans are spending a fair amount on holiday fanfare: According to a Gallup Poll, the median amount being spent this year is $458. Most people -- about 75 percent -- will spend more than $250, while 17 percent say they'll spend more than $1,000.

But as many consumers take stock of their Christmas expenses, some have found themselves taking stock of their values as well.

"Instead of looking at it as an economic crisis that forces us to cut back, we are looking at it as a time to reassess where we are and appreciate things that perhaps we've overlooked. To have deeper appreciation for what we already have," says the Rev. Robert Stucky of St. Mark's-On-The-Hill Episcopal church in Pikesville, and a father of two.

The Stuckys have shortened their gift lists and baked cookies, and are making increased efforts to pay off debts. "We're changing our mode of behavior a lot. I'd like to get rid of the anxiety, the feeling, when the mail comes of, 'Thank God he didn't bring a bill,' " says Mr. Stucky's wife, Rohini. Then she

adds, "A quieter, not as glitzy, more simple Christmas allows us to have a family time."

The Stuckys are not alone in their modified approach to Christmas festivities.

Patti Righter and her family decided not to spend as much on themselves this year. But, adds the sales associate with Exclusive Rental Properties Ltd. in Baltimore, they plan to give more away.

In previous years, the Righters have given food and gifts to a needy family. This season, they will help two families. "I would feel so guilty this year if I had a lot of presents," says Ms. Righter. "I would feel guilty thinking about all those people standing in line [at soup kitchens] or without homes."

Although nationally, contributions to some charities have decreased, the obsession with conspicuous consumption that dominated the '80s may be giving way to a less selfish mood.

"I think Americans are disenchanted at some level with the whole idea of buying that's behind the holidays, but don't know how to get off the treadmill," says Ned Gaylin, chairman of Family and Community Development at the University of Maryland in College Park.

"Americans are far less materialistic than they are led to believe and at some level it is almost a relief to be able to say, 'Who needs signature purses and designer clothing?' "

However, deep thoughts and slow economy aside, malls are still bustling.

"My customers don't seem to have a care in the world. . . . Maybe a bill might be missed in January or something, but I think they'll sacrifice for their children," says Mary Brown, manager of Kay Bee Toys at Mondawmin Mall.

Some shoppers are taking a buy-now, worry-later approach. "I'm just not going to think about it," says a 30-something woman as she stands, laden with bags, in White Marsh Mall. "I mean I am thinking about it. I'm worrying about the economy. I'm just going to buy presents and worry later."

Others are applying a much more cautious approach to shopping. Baltimore resident Michelle Perdue scours advertisements in magazines and newspapers to find the best prices. "It's the only way to save," she says. "I don't go out and drivearound looking -- the gas prices are phenomenal."

Her husband, Forrest, has joined forces with his neighbors to save on Christmas expenses. Together they've drawn up a master list of all the Nintendo games for which their children have asked. Each set of parents will buy one or two games and later the kids will trade off, says Mr. Perdue, father of two and unit administrator of the 243 Ordinance Company U.S. Army Reserves in Owings Mills.

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