Tim Johnson’s pitch for his ax-throwing class is simple and direct.

“Ever felt the urge to chuck an ax across the room?” he asks on the web page for his business, Maine Warrior Gym in Westbrook. “Now you can!”

Johnson’s main business is ninja-style training classes for kids. The ax-throwing is a sideline.

But it’s become an unexpectedly popular sideline. Gift certificates for Johnson’s ax-throwing – $35 for an introductory session, with a choice of axes and tomahawks – are a popular gift choice, he said, for the holidays or life events.

“We’ve had bachelorette parties and we’ve had divorce parties,” all centered on ax-throwing, he said.

It’s also an example of a growing trend of experiential gift-giving. Instead of another sweater, proponents said, why not give a loved one a thoughtful gift that will create a memory?

“It’s something we push a lot,” Johnson said. “Experiences are more fulfilling and don’t take up as much space in the closet.”

Maddy Purcell pushes experiential gifts as well. Her business – Fyood (pronounced “feud”) Kitchen – sells an experience similar to the “Chopped” TV show, with participants striving to create a tasty dish from a set of ingredients, even if they’re not familiar with those foods. But she also believes giving experiences as a gift is a fast-growing trend.

That led her to put together a small gift guide, the Experience Maine Gift Guide, with links to other businesses that sell experiences, such as Johnson’s ax-throwing classes and oyster farm tasting tours and disc golf passes.

Research from the Wharton School of Economics backs Purcell up. Scholars found that not only is spending on experiential gifts growing faster than spending on traditional gifts, but both the giver and recipient are happier with those choices.

“There’s this double gift involved,” Purcell said.

Wharton professor Cassie Mogilner, whose research was published in a paper co-authored with Cindy Chan, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto Scarborough, said it’s clear that people are much happier, and that happiness is lasting, when people treat themselves to a nice dinner or going on vacation or going to a concert, rather than buying the latest electronic gadget or a piece of jewelry.

“We ran a bunch of studies and found that when recipients receive an experience, regardless of whether they share in that experience with the gift-giver, they feel more connected to the gift-giver as a result of it, compared to receiving a material gift,” Mogilner said in an interview posted on Wharton’s website.

‘CONSCIENTIOUS CONSUMERISM’

Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School in Bar Harbor is one of the companies participating in the Maine experiential gift guide. It offers gift certificates for things such as a daylong hike up Mount Washington for $150 and a two-day trek up Mount Katahdin for $225, to weeklong hut-to-hut cross-country skiing trips that start at about $1,150.

Amanda Hatley, the company’s retail manager, said other popular choices include avalanche rescue training programs, which are often given as gifts from family members who want to make sure loved ones know what to do in the backcountry.

“It’s great to know this information, especially if you’re on Mount Katahdin or Tuckerman Ravine in the winter,” Hatley said.

She said grandparents often spring for a summer camp gift certificate for their grandkids.

“We have a lot of gift-giving that goes on over here,” she said.

Purcell said the outdoor adventures are emblematic of the experiential gift-giving trend. Millennials, she said, are particularly attentive to their impact on the world, and that includes what they do around the holidays.

“There’s an emphasis on conscientious consumerism,” she said. “People are spending more on events and experiences than on other things.”

THE ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA

A survey by the National Retail Federation last February of more than 7,000 respondents found that 42 percent of consumers would prefer an experiential Valentine’s Day gift, rather than a material gift. People ages 25-34 were much more likely to give an experiential gift, the survey found.

That is also borne out by Mogilner’s research.

“There’s a lot of talk right now about how (millennials) share these life narratives that they’re telling through their experiences, and they’re posting these really cool experiences on Facebook,” she said. “So, there’s more awareness of the value of experiences, and maybe gift-givers might be a little more likely to give experiences.”

Social media also play a role that could benefit the businesses. Purcell said most of the people who take part in Fyood post photos and videos of the event online, spreading word of her business via valuable word-of-mouth publicity.

An experience gift can also be a gentle nudge, said Stephanie Harmon, owner of Hustle and Flow, a dance and exercise studio in Portland.

The certificates for Hustle and Flow classes, she said, are usually bought “by people who have been talking about it with a friend or partner and have been talking about it for a while.”

Buying a certificate for a friend is a way to ensure that the giver and the recipient will finally take a fitness class, she said.

Gift certificates are good for her company’s financial health, Harmon said, with a boost in revenue at the end of the year and the likelihood that at least some of the recipients will sign up for more than what the certificate covers.

“It’s definitely nice around the holidays. There’s a little extra boost,” she said.

 

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