This holiday, more shoppers are looking out for No. 1

Justin Hotchkiss is striding through a Boston mall, beaming. It's not the clock he just bought for his father; it's video-game aliens dancing in his head. Mr. Hotchkiss has found the perfect gift. And finally, a week before Christmas, he'll check off the last person on his list: himself.

"I do it all the time," he says. "The ratio is one present for me for every two presents I get everyone else."

Self-gifting has gone on for eons, of course. But Americans now do it with such candor and zeal that it rivals stringing tinsel on the tree.

In addition to overtly buying for oneself, online wish lists - designed to stave off the cringe of unwanted "surprises" - and in-store registries are proliferating. It's a pragmatic shift in holiday shopping. And beyond a burgeoning population of more narcissistic elves, it's a window on a retail industry increasingly promoting the longstanding practice of playing Santa to oneself - and erasing the shame of self-indulgence.

And more broadly, say experts, it's a window on a demographic shift reshaping holiday expectations along with America itself. "With the breakdown of the nuclear family, people think, 'If I don't get it for myself, nobody else will,' says Paco Underhill, author of "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping."

Consider the statistics: In 1950, nearly 80 percent of US households included married couples. Today, it's 51 percent. A strange upshot of that thriving population of singletons is that many adults don't have a significant other to buy them a present - or to buy for. Nor are they inspired by the prospect of hours in packed malls, hunting down gifts for a battalion of second cousins and picky aunts.

The surge in self-gifting - it made up 23 percent of all money spent on last year's holiday gifts, according to America's Research Group - is clear in a spate of marketing efforts that, for the first time, overtly urge shoppers to remember No. 1. Diamond company DeBeers recommends, perhaps, the priciest token of self-love: right-hand rings. "The left hand for we, the right hand for me," the slogan goes. Pottery Barn is close behind, offering "gifts for everyone, including yourself," in its holiday catalog.

Givers, too, are acknowledging the trickiness of choosing presents - and the comparative ease of letting recipients shop for themselves. Purchases of gift cards - high-tech gift certificates - are projected to jump 16 percent this year, according to Boston-based consulting firm Bain & Co. Stores and websites say traffic on self-registries and wish lists is booming.

For self-gifters pining for warm weather, there's a surge in cruise packages with perks like spa treatments and hotel rooms for one. "Their message is, 'You do a lot for everyone else; take yourself away,' " says Henry Harteveldt, a travel-industry analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

Women are responsible for most self-gifting, say experts - perhaps because they do 70 percent of the holiday shopping. About half of women under 35 say they buy themselves a December treat, according to Europe RSCG, a New York-based market-research firm. "It reflects the principle that the shopper in motion stays in motion," says Pam Danzinger, author of "Why People Buy Things They Don't Need."

It's rooted, too, in women's economic independence: With more dual-income households, buying for oneself, with one's own money, is more acceptable than ever.

Take Sylvia Wilson, who owns an antique business with her husband in Auburn, Wash. Every year she buys herself something that she thinks no one in the family would choose. On Christmas Eve, she wraps it and tucks it under the tree with a label: "From Santa." "Women want things to match," explains an unapologetic Ms. Wilson. "You write 'gloves' on a list and who knows what you'll get?"

Lisa Lancaster knows that feeling. A marketing assistant in Lancaster, Pa., she has zero interest in the gift from her "secret Santa" at work. "I got little snowmen ornaments," says Ms. Lancaster, in a tone that suggests those snowmen might as well have been termites. "They really weren't me."

As a replacement, she got herself a $6 harmonica ornament and a handful more for friends. Buoyed by that purchase, she bought a $50 down comforter while shopping for family online.

Still, some find the growth of self-gifting as poignant as it is pragmatic. Historically, say experts, gift giving symbolized an economic or social bond between two people. Self-gifting turns that tradition on its head - a sign of shifting societal values and "a statement of self-satisfaction, self-reward," says William Waits, author of "The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving."

But tell that to the 40 percent of Americans who've added themselves to their holiday lists, according to an American Express Survey. They're not expecting coal in their stockings as a reprimand for self-indulgence: In fact, come Christmas morning, they'll wake up with the happy sense of knowing exactly what's under the tree.

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