SINGAPORE - It seems even a pandemic cannot stop the fever for festive shopping.
People still throng Orchard Road malls these days, queueing in long lines to scan SafeEntry codes outside boutiques or patiently waiting to have purchases wrapped.
Christmas gifting is alive and well, even as purse strings are tightened in other areas.
What has changed is how people give. This year, gone are the big-group gift exchanges and spider-webbed Secret Santas. The lack of office parties has also taken corporate gifting down a notch.
'Tis the season of socially distanced present-giving, and as friends and families adapt to restrictions, new trends such as remote gifting and cosier unwrapping ceremonies have emerged.
The circuit breaker, say retailers, played a big role in shaping gifting and shopping habits.
For one thing, the online marketplace has taken up a larger chunk of this year's pie as more consumers got used to shopping online.
At multi-label beauty retailer Escentials, owned by fragrance and cosmetics distributor Luxasia, online sales reached an all-time high of 60 per cent and "have continued at high volumes even as consumers have returned" to its three stores.
Two months or more apart from loved ones also sharpened shoppers' savvy in sending presents and care packages.
Local online gifting platform Happy Bunch (happybunch.com.sg) saw its customisable gift boxes called Build A Box, introduced during the circuit breaker, fly off the virtual shelves.
Available at a base price (from $15), the boxes can be filled with assorted food, health or beauty products from local brands, after which customers can add a message and have it sent directly to the recipient.
Director and country manager Minnie Bui says Covid-19 was a "pivotal moment", with a spike in care packages being sent to cheer loved ones up.
She also saw a rise in remote birthday presents, gifts sent in lieu of cancelled weddings and more overseas orders to recipients in Singapore from partners or families separated by border restrictions.
"What we noticed was that people want a curated selection of local, trusted brands - with the flexibility and convenience of choosing from multiple brands in one space," she adds.
"With the movement restrictions, gifting was one way for people to be there without physically being there."
Likewise, beauty retailer Sephora observes a new trend in "distance gifting, even locally". In the last year, about 65 per cent of orders that included a gift box were addressed to a recipient who was not the purchaser.
"As a result of social distancing and circuit breaker measures, our customers are getting more savvy at surprising their friends and family with small tokens of affection without even leaving their house," says a spokesman.
Taking distance gifting across shores, Sephora enables cross-border gift card buying so customers can buy gift cards for friends abroad via the country's site domain - for example, using sephora.my to buy for friends in Malaysia. They can also add personalised video messages to their gifts.
Should people still step into stores these days, it is sans the aimless browsing and with "high intent", adds the spokesman.
"Those who visit our stores know what they want - they use our mobile app to build their shopping lists, book virtual consultations and opt for our click-and-reserve WhatsApp service to ensure their products are ready for them at the store."
Bigger, better gifts
The year of social distancing and working from home has also had an effect on the type and size of gifts bought.
Curbs on group sizes have helped naturally cull friend lists. With many still working from home, large-scale office Secret Santas are now dead, and along with them, the demand for offhand purchases.
Without the need for small, polite gifts to give colleagues or insignificant others, some are buying bigger and better - for those who do matter.
Real estate agent Windy Chan used to buy 40 to 50 Christmas gifts in the past - spending up to a few hundred dollars - but has narrowed her list down to just 20 this year.
"I used to buy generic stocking fillers like chocolates, hand washes and those hand creams that come with three in a tube. I had these on standby in case I had guests visiting, or to pass to colleagues or clients when I see them," says Ms Chan, 41.
"This year, I did away with all of that because I won't be meeting as many people, such as former classmates. I've spent more on individual Christmas gifts this year, maybe because I cut away the generic gifts and have more money to spend on family and close friends."
Indeed, gift giving has become more intentional, note retailers.
Happy Bunch's most popular items for its gift boxes include "thoughtful" picks such as hand sanitiser, fabric masks, pampering products like clay masks and candles, and healthy snacks.
"People want - and will continue to get - things that are practical and relevant to their lifestyle at the moment," says Ms Bui.
"They look for items useful to the receiver."
Retailers also observed more shoppers buying premium or big-ticket items.
Luxasia regional managing director Karen Ong has noticed "people being a lot more willing to trade up the luxury scale for higher-end brands, and buying higher-priced items".
She reckons it may have to do with shoppers redirecting their travel budget.
She says: "With many consumers unable to travel, they tend to channel some of their spending towards the finer things in life.
"Instead of experiencing different countries, they focus on sharing luxury brands, memorable shopping experiences and exploring new products in their home country.
"This year has also taught us to look beyond spending on ourselves, to spending on others and lifting their mood."
A little something for myself
More are treating themselves too.
Luxury e-tailer Net-a-Porter observed more shoppers in the region carting out fine jewellery and watches this year, "due to customers purchasing more long-term investments".
Senior fashion market editor Libby Page says: "Luxury bags were the biggest surprise to us, as customers used this time to invest in their 'forever bag' from brands such as Bottega Veneta, Gucci and Saint Laurent."
Also popular were jewellery with "meaning and heritage", such as zodiac signs and evil eyes.
"Our customers love anything with added relevance and meaning. Everyone knows his or her star sign and carrying it with you feels special and significant."
Ms Page predicts that gifting this year "will be centred on mood rather than occasion".
"We've learnt from the past eight months that personal connections, even far, will give us strength to get through uncertainty.
"Retailers must find a way to evoke these emotions in bringing together a group of individuals and the special gifts that keep them feeling connected," she says.
For Ms Chan, her inner circle will be receiving specially chosen gifts - an "upmarket" water bottle for someone who always carries one with her; and suitable skincare for another with sensitive skin.
She adds: "During this pandemic, I found myself becoming more attentive to the people around me and asking myself what they would really need.
"Maybe it's because we cannot take the time we have together for granted anymore."