I'm embarrassed to admit that my husband and I hand our two boys extra money every year around this time to buy Christmas presents -- for us and each other. It seems so stupid. But I get the feeling I'm not alone.
There are no figures or studies on what kids buy at Christmas or Hanukah, or on how much they spend on gifts, but judging by what my friends and colleagues tell me, kids' holiday buying is definitely a substantial segment of Christmas spending.
Not surprisingly, I guess, most kids, like mine, get much of their spending money from their parents, retail market watchers say. Many of us parents opt for a separate remission earmarked just for gift buying. And parents tend to be freer with their money during the holiday period, pushed by the desire to spark warm family feelings and create traditions of giving, according to the spending experts.
"Kids are absolutely buying," said Rob Callender, trend manager at Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm that studies teen trends. "And they're buying during the holidays. They have good disposable income, and they're being looked at more and more often by retailers."
American kids between the ages of 12 and 15 spend an average of $59 a week, according to an October study by Teenage Research Unlimited. By the time they're 19, that average weekly spending figure shoots up to $139.
With the 12-to-15-year-olds, about half their spending money comes directly from their parents. With the 19-year-olds, the parents' contribution drops to a little less than one-third of what they spend, since 19-year-olds often have jobs.
The big holiday shoppers are girls, according to analysts and judging from what my friends who have girls tell me. They buy presents not only for family members but often for lots of friends -- even their entire class.
Boys? Much less so. My boys have never given any of their friends Christmas presents; they've never even mentioned it as a possibility. And they haven't received any, either.
"The boys just sit back and say 'Merry Christmas,' " laments Rebecca Gallahue, an 11-year-old Alexandria girl who has already bought presents for about a dozen of her friends. "The girls go out and buy all the presents."
And what is it that these girls are buying?
Girls often go for makeup or craft sets, accessories and body lotions for their friends, according to Candace Corlett, a principal at WSL Strategic Retail, a New York retail consulting firm. "It's a very different product category," Corlett said. "Retailers are targeting these young girls specifically."
Corlett said kids have brand preferences and store preferences, too, and that those preferences extend to gift-buying for friends. "They choose brands that won't make them look foolish -- the brands everyone else has. They buy their friends what they'd want," she said. But the preferences can "change like the wind."
This year, gift cards are the hot new holiday presents for friends, said Tom Holliday, president of the Retail Advertising and Marketing Association. Gift cards come third on the list of the categories of gifts people want to receive this year, Holliday said, after books, DVDs and CDs, and apparel and accessories.
"They're great because they let the kids make their own decisions," Holliday said. "Gift cards will spark a revolution in marketing going forward."
For parents, the presents can be more personal, like homemade crafts and cards, or affordable store-bought items, such as CDs, bookstore gift cards, costume jewelry, or salt and pepper shakers. Price is, of course, a crucial factor in what a child buys.
Callender said the outlook for teen spending this holiday season is rosier than the outlook for spending by the general population.
"Teens are more isolated from economic factors," Callender said. "They haven't been as impacted by the slowing of the economy. They have fewer things claiming their money. They don't need to make mortgage payments, take the dog to the vet, anything."
Kids are picking discount retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target more than ever, retail watchers say, following in their parents' footsteps. "They're infected by the 'It's smart to be thrifty' idea," Holliday said. "They like shopping at big-box stores. Their friends think it's appropriate and trendy to do that."
A favorite store among young kids is Target, which works hard at cultivating an image that will call to them.
"Kids are an important component of the people shopping at Target," said Douglas Kline, a spokesman for the retailer. "A lot of our products reflect a youthful approach that appeals to young people."
Kline said, though, that what keeps kids coming back is the merchandise itself. "You can't entice kids just with a slick marketing approach. Today's kids are very savvy," he said. "You have to follow up with great merchandise."