For about two years, Ashley Houck has put together care packages of items like candles, bath salts and caramels with a personalized note. She ships the gift boxes from her home in Iowa to recipients across the country to mark milestones, from birthdays and breakups to the death of a parent.
Business picked up in mid-March, however, as the coronavirus pandemic brought much of life to a halt. Orders shot up from around 15 to 20 per day to about 200, said Houck, founder of Gift Box Love Co.
"It got to the point where we were running all the time just getting orders out," she said. "I had my mom come in. My mother-in-law come in. My brother. We were all just packaging orders, just to keep up."
The company's growing sales reflect the different mentality of shoppers this year, especially during the holiday season. Long-distance trips to visit relatives are a health risk. Seasonal traditions, such as cookie swaps and neighborhood parties, have been canceled. And meals with some family and friends will be celebrated on a video call rather than around a table.
In a time of social distancing, financial hardship and illness from Covid-19, online searches and purchasing patterns indicate that holiday shoppers are seeking meaningful gifts, from personalized items to handmade goods.
Swasti Sarna, insights manager at Pinterest, said as the pandemic restricts plans, people are putting more time and effort into making their gifts and smaller celebrations special.
Holiday-related searches on the social media site typically start to spike in the month of June, she said. This year, however, they picked up in April — just weeks after the coronavirus began to spread in the U.S. and about eight months before Christmas.
Holiday searches in April, including for gifts or other items like seasonal decor, were up by 77% on the social media site year-over-year. Searches for "Christmas gift ideas" were three times higher in April than the same time a year earlier, she said.
The browsing has continued. Searches for "personalized Christmas gift ideas" increased 46% and "sentimental gifts for best friend" doubled in October compared with the same month last year.
"People are just looking for something to look forward to," Sarna said. "It's a really tough time for everybody, but the holidays are always a really fun time and just spread a lot of cheer. So I think people are just really trying to bring that into their lives a little bit earlier this year."
In a recent report, Nielsen predicted that homemade gifts and cooking will thrive during the holiday season, especially among shoppers who are on a tight budget or want to limit trips outside of the home. Sales of related items — such as artist and hobby supplies, cocktail mixers and baking supplies — have already jumped this fall compared with the same time a year ago, a trend the market research firm expects will continue.
Some retailers have adapted their marketing approach or merchandise to reflect shoppers' interest in meaningful and memorable gifts. Home Depot, for example, is collaborating with Pinterest to inspire ideas for homemade gifts for the holidays. Confectionary and food company Mondalez International launched a new website where customers can design and order Oreos that can be personalized with the colors of a favorite sports' team or a photo of a family member.
Signet Jewelers, which owns mall-based retail chains like Jared, Kay Jewelers and Zales, will sell necklaces and other jewelry items with stories behind them that are intended to resonate during the pandemic. For example, Jared has a collection called "Closer Together" with a design of two entwined ovals that can signify how the challenging time has brought a couple closer, Signet CEO Gina Drosos said.
"Gifts that have a story like that, we expect to be very strong this holiday season," she said.
Drosos said many customers want to customize and personalize their jewelry in some way, too, — including getting a ring or another piece of jeweler engraved with a message that refers to the pandemic.
Etsy has a new holiday campaign called "Gift Like You Mean It." In one of its new TV spots, a grandma and grandpa open a stuffed doll made to look like the scribbled self-portrait of their young grandson. On a video call, he tells them to hug his likeness, as they celebrate apart.
On the e-commerce site, which features shops of handmade goods, crafts and other unique items, there's been a 156% increase in searches for custom or personalized gifts in the past three months compared to the same time a year ago.
Care packages and greeting cards, in particular, are in strong demand, said Dayna Isom Johnson, trend expert for Etsy and judge on the crafting competition show NBC's "Making It."
She said customers are being more intentional in other ways, too. There's been a 37% increase in searches on Etsy for eco-friendly gifts in the last three months. Searches on Etsy for eco-friendly gift wrap have risen 110% over the last three months compared with the same period a year ago.
"A lot of times, the holidays can just be about excess," she said. "This year is more about consideration, thoughtfulness and really asking yourself why you're making this purchase and who are you supporting."
With her own holiday shopping, Isom Johnson said she has that mentality, too. She ordered a handmade recipe box for her brother to help him organize sticky notes with recipes from their mom. She bought a Christmas ornament in the likeness of Dr. Anthony Fauci for her mom, who has become a fan of the nation's leading infectious disease expert.
In her small town in Iowa, Houck said she recently put together a group of corporate gifts that were each labeled with a sticker asking the employees who received them to wait and open the packages on a Zoom meeting together. Meanwhile, sales of gift boxes with a pandemic-inspired note and succulent pairing — "Quarantine succs" — have picked up again along with rising Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations. And she has stocked up on holiday-themed notes so she's ready to tuck them inside care packages, too.
"It's just a way that you can deliver love," she said. "I watched someone unbox one of our gifts a couple of weeks ago and she just started crying. And it made me cry. It just shows you that you're remembered. You're treasured. You've been thought of."
Disclosure: CNBC is a unit of Comcast's NBCUniversal.