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Hot This Holiday Season: Gifts of Self-Improvement

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Call it a Christmas of self-improvement for everyone on Christina Borra's shopping list. She's buying a day spa treatment for Mom. Organic toys for her pets. And for herself -- breast implants.

''You can't fix the bigger things in the world,'' says Borra, a registered nurse from St. Augustine, Fla. ''But you can fix the things you have control over.''

There's something new under the tree for gift-givers and gift-getters this holiday season: stuff that helps folks de-stress, decompress or even defy the aging process. It's a cosmic kind of self-improvement that's coming gift-wrapped. Shoppers are asking: What can I buy for Mom -- and myself -- that will make us feel younger and healthier, and maybe even melt three decades of coffee stains off our teeth?

Most retailers are projecting a bang-up Christmas. Holiday sales could top $217.4 billion, up 5.7% from last year, the National Retail Federation projects. But amid this optimism, there's a strong undercurrent of consumer interest that's moving away from stuff for stuff's sake and toward stuff that makes recipients feel healthy, think clearly or even appear ageless.

Driving this trend: aging baby boomers demanding a better, often-healthier lifestyle for themselves and their kids.

''The low-carb lifestyle has found its way into retailing,'' says Brendan Hoffman, CEO of Neiman Marcus Direct, publisher of the chi-chi Christmas Book.

All the healthier lifestyle promises that everyone from Dr. Atkins to McDonald's is successfully peddling haven't gone unnoticed by the nation's major retailers. Stuff that makes us look, feel or even smile better is hot this holiday. Even if it doesn't fit in a Christmas stocking.

''There is a formidable shift in how people live their lives -- and how they look at their lives,'' says George Whalin, CEO of Retail Management Consultants. ''The same gal who buys a salad at McDonald's at noon probably owns a treadmill and takes yoga lessons.''

Executives say this is an extremely lucrative niche. But it's not necessarily found in the fine jewelry section at Bloomie's. It's about $195 yoga equipment. It's about tooth-whitening products that can cost more than a fancy dinner. It's about luxury spas with equally luxurious price tags.

Borra's 70-year-old mom, who is recovering from major surgery, is game for the $350 spa treatment gift. And Borra, who is recovering from the overwork and stress of 12-hour workdays in the emergency room, will have her breasts augmented two weeks before Christmas. She also filed divorce papers last week after a failed 15-year marriage to a police officer.

A trend even at Costco

But what does this have to do with Christmas? Or Hanukkah? Or all that stuff dangling -- unsold -- from the sales racks at Nordstrom?

Everything. The goods and services that people purchase year-round for themselves only become magnified in the gifts that they buy for others for the holidays.

The trend is even showing up in Costco. One of the hot sellers this holiday at the warehouse chain is a $39 gift basket loaded with creams, lotions and moisturizers. ''We'll sell every one of these baskets that we put out there,'' says CEO Jim Sinegal.

While shopping at Costco this month, Laurie Karzen, who owns the Emeryville, Calif., retail consulting firm Just Whistle, bought one of the baskets for a gift exchange at her husband's office. ''All those baby boomers with grandkids care about being fit, being healthy and looking good,'' she says.

The story's the same for the antithesis of Costco: the pages of the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book.

Early holiday sales of the handful of self-improvement-type items in the upscale catalog are so strong that an entire section of the catalog likely will be devoted to them next year, says Hoffman.

Among this year's hot sellers: a $132 Juicy Couture gym bag, a $135 tube of Natura Bisse Inhibit wrinkle-fighting cream; and a $195 yoga kit with a Neiman Marcus engraved mat, bag and strap.

In the past, all three of those items more likely would have been gifts people buy for themselves. But this year, Hoffman says, people are mostly requesting them with gift boxes.

Hot yoga merchandise

One shopper surveyed by NPD Group made it very clear why she was purchasing for her husband a gift certificate for a series of rock massages.

''I want these massages in the worst way,'' she told Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the research firm. ''So if I purchase these for my husband, guess who's going to go with him?''

That's why Transform Yoga, in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., has created holiday gift cards for 10 prepaid lessons for $150. Students are purchasing them for themselves and their partners.

Yoga merchandise is so hot this holiday that the Bed Bath & Beyond chain is, for the first time, carrying special gift sets of yoga videos and equipment that sell for $19.98. Gaiam, one of the largest yoga retailers, makes the sets.

''People are looking for more ways to relax -- not more ways to wear themselves out,'' says Eva Williams, president of the retail group at Gaiam.

Few retailers are more hip to the self-indulgent gift trend than Bath & Body Works. It's not by accident that a new $25 White Barn candle line -- with about twice the fragrance of the chain's other candles -- has emerged as a surprisingly hot seller this Christmas at the 245 stores where it's available.

''We weren't sure if we could sell a $25 candle,'' admits CEO Neil Fiske. That's why it was initially tested in only a fraction of the chain's 1,600 domestic stores.

But the most expensive candle at Bath & Body Works is selling big time. By spring, it will be in all of the stores, says Fiske, who regrets it's not in all already.

Then there's the $34 True Blue Spa pedicure kit. It comes with a nail file, foot scrub, foot cream, a nail brush and polish. No wonder it's a mover. In a survey, 31% of Bath & Body Works shoppers said they planned to get a manicure or pedicure over the holidays. And what they want for themselves, says President Ken Stevens, they're even more eager to purchase as gifts for others.

Just ask former Marine Jerry Folden.

He's 6 feet tall and 215 pounds but not the least bit shy about getting a pedicure. (He likes them.) Or soaking in bubble bath. (He soaks in scented baths weekly.) Or wearing moisturizing socks. (He puts on the pair he got from his wife last Christmas several times weekly.)

Sold on art of relaxation

Folden, a 34-year-old paramedic student from Kansas City, Mo., says he became sold on the art of relaxation after completing a particularly tough overseas assignment in the Marine Corps.

This Christmas, Folden plans to buy a gift for his wife that will also be a gift to himself : a $400 home air purifier.

His wife, Stephanie, a network engineer for Sprint, wants a pair of moisturizing gloves for Christmas. ''If someone gives them to you as a gift,'' she says, ''it's not such a guilty pleasure.'' She plans to give them to some friends, too.

Don't look for DVDs and sweaters under Wendy Queal's Christmas tree. The 34-year-old resident of Hutchinson, Kan., only wants stuff that makes her feel better.

She's asking her husband for certificates for two massages and a facial. Last year she asked her grandmother for tanning certificates. ''Winter is depressing in Kansas,'' she explains. ''Sometimes we don't see the sun for a month.''

New Yorkers are giving gifts that pamper, too. At the posh Bliss 57 spa on 59th Street, where a facial goes for $140, lines for holiday gift certificates were so long last year that the spa is asking customers to order them online this year, says founder Marcia Kilgore.

Even kids aren't immune from this self-improvement Christmas.

Teens, in particular, are hot for Under Armour performance wear. These are specially designed shirts and undergarments that athletes -- from runners to football players to skiers -- wear to replace cotton T-shirts and under shorts. Instead of sticking to the skin, the wetness from sweat is absorbed into the outer layer of the shirt and kept away from the skin.

They're not cheap. A short-sleeved T-shirt goes for $25, and a long-sleeved version fetches $50. Under Armour performance wear is so popular that projected 2004 sales of $200 million will nearly quadruple that of 2002, estimates founder and CEO Kevin Plank.

It's no surprise that sales of performance and fitness equipment are up 25% this year at Modell's Sporting Goods, says CEO Mitchell Modell. ''There's a big shift going among kids who are less interested in being computer geeks and more interested in playing sports.''

Ditto for their parents. Fitness equipment sales topped $4.3 billion last year -- up more than 10% from the year before. Much of that equipment is bought for holiday gifts. As boomers age, ''Many distrust the potential of medicine to keep them healthy but are very concerned about staying alive and well,'' says Thomas Doyle, vice president of research at the National Sporting Goods Association.

A desire to look better

They also want to look better. It's no accident that next week, Procter & Gamble will introduce Crest Whitestrips Premium, which whiten teeth in half the time of regular Whitestrips -- one week instead of two. A kit costs $35 -- $4 more than regular Whitestrips.

Not only are some folks eager to whiten their teeth before Christmas, but the kits also are selling as stocking stuffers, says Bryan McCleary, a Crest spokesman.

Borra, the emergency room nurse who is having saline breast implants, says she's not interested in whiter teeth. Her Christmas gift to herself is about a far different kind of self-esteem.

The surgery, scheduled for Dec. 9, will cost $4,000. She's worked four jobs to pay for it.

''It's not out of desperation,'' she says. ''It's about stepping into me.''

When the surgery is over, and she's healed, Borra says she has plans for another splurge: a trip to Victoria's Secret.

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