NEW YORK — Forget the material things — reindeer sweaters, clunky toys, stocking stuffers. How about a skydiving lesson, a spa pampering session or a night at a cozy bed and breakfast?
This holiday season, a lasting memory is worth a thousand knickknacks.
With less money to spend in the weak economy, and with daily-deal sites such as Groupon growing in popularity, more Americans are giving experiences instead of glitzy gifts. Think comfort and joy, not five golden rings.
Instead of sneakers or electronic gizmos, Denice Bailey and her husband are treating their two teenage boys to a Dallas Cowboys game, dinner at a steak house and a family night in a hotel.
Because it's sure to cost hundreds of dollars, the parents let the boys choose between the night on the town and store-bought gifts. Bailey was surprised by their decision.
"That said a lot to me, that they are wanting that memory, that experience," said Bailey of Abilene, Texas. "That family time is for me, as a mom, the most precious gift I can have."
There's no reliable way to track how much shoppers are spending on experience gifts this year compared with the amounts in previous years. But shoppers are expected to spend $80 million to $100 million on deal sites over the holidays — as much as 10 times more than they did last year — according to an estimate for North America from Yipit, a site that collects daily deals from across the Web.
"Deal sites get a lot of credit for bringing new and unusual experiences to the attention of people who might not have thought about them," said Dan Hess, chief executive of Dealradar.com, another site that aggregates deals.
Groupon, the biggest deal site, sold 650,000 of its "Grouponicus" deals — the name is an apparent play on the secular Seinfeld holiday of Festivus — in the four days after Thanksgiving, six times as many as it did last year.
LivingSocial, the No. 2 deal site, sold more than 281,000 vouchers during the first three days of its "12 Days of Giving" promotion — about 50 percent more than it sold last year. The number given as gifts has more than doubled.
For those ready to take the plunge, there are many options.
In New York, LivingSocial had a $100 deal for a wine-tasting and meatball-cooking class taught by the chef of Little Owl restaurant. It sold out in an hour. In Austin, Texas, Groupon offered a package of classes valued at $2,300 for $999. Included: a five-hour pyrotechnics workshop, a stunt driving course and hand-to-hand-combat training. In Toronto, it offered dog-sledding lessons for two for $74, half off.
Still, as with any gift, givers of online daily deals have to proceed with caution.
The deals come with expiration dates, and if your brother keeps bugging you about whether you've taken that hot air balloon ride, it can get awkward. Plus, you can always take a necktie back, but returning a day of zip-lining is tricky without a time machine.
Aaron Cooper, whose job title is chief of gifting at Groupon, said givers should make sure to tailor their gifts to the person so that it's something that person can use. Not, say, skydiving lessons for 86-year-old Aunt Bertha.
Maire Griffin, a LivingSocial spokeswoman, agrees: "You're not going to give anyone Botox. If you are, you're not going to be their friend anymore."