Experiential gifts take over the holiday season

Not far from Tokyo's Haneda Airport is a facility that's home to a flight simulator. The device is used for professional pilot training but is also available for anyone who wants to feel what it's like to soar through the skies.

This November, Osamu Sasaki visited with his wife, Mie. They sat in a Boeing 737 simulator and for 30 minutes experienced what it feels like to fly a jumbo jet over Tokyo.

It was a birthday gift from their daughter, Ema Teshima. For years, she had been giving her parents traditional presents, things they might find useful like home appliances and clothes. But this time around, she decided to try something different: an "experience."

"My parents are both retired so they have plenty of time on their hands," said Ema. "I wanted to give them memories rather than just more stuff."

Osamu Sasaki and his wife, Mie.

Sow Experience in Tokyo has been in the experiential gift business for 15 years. The company offers over 6,000 options, ranging from cruise trips to spa treatments to flower arrangement lessons. Sales have been shooting up over the past few years. The company says it expects to record a 35 percent increase this year compared to 2018.

But what's behind the surge in popularity of the experiential gift? Akemi Natsuyama of the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living says it reflects a shift in cultural values driven by social media.

"The spread of social media has made it easier for people to share videos and images, not only of things they own but of their lifestyle," Natsuyama says. "Their followers see the fancy meals and vacations and feel like they want to experience the same things."

Natsuyama says an "overabundance of goods" is also a contributing factor. In a survey Hakuhodo Institute conducted earlier this year, nearly 70% of respondents said they own too much stuff. 68% said they are hesitant to buy new things because their houses are cluttered.

Sow Experience has a page on their website dedicated to Christmas gift ideas.

This year, experiential gifts are at the top of every Christmas list. Sow Experience has put together a catalogue to help customers select the perfect gifts for their loved ones. The company has also set up a booth inside a department store.

"The great thing about experiential gifts is that they give the recipient a chance to spend time doing what he or she loves," says Masahiro Sekiguchi, a Sow business development officer. "That's why we believe they will soon become one of the first things people think of when it comes to gift-buying."