LOS ANGELES — Last Christmas, Karen Hoxmeier bought her brother a cashmere scarf and several pricey gadgets for his digital camera.
This year, she bought the out-of-work Hollywood cameraman something more essential: groceries.
With the nation's unemployment rate still high and the economy sluggish, a growing number of people are giving food this holiday season. But it's not fruitcake, eggnog or Christmas cookies. Instead, the quiet voice of frugality is prompting consumers to wrap up baskets of kitchen staples, boxes of meat and grocery store gift cards to help loved ones stock dwindling pantries.
Hoxmeier got the idea after sneaking a peek inside her younger brother Bill's kitchen cabinets. She found them pretty bare, she said, "even for a guy."
For months, her 35-year-old sibling had cut back to make ends meet. His cable TV? Canceled. The phone? Long gone. Shopping trips for vegetarian specialties at his favorite market, Trader Joe's? Completely out.
So Hoxmeier headed to the eclectic grocery chain this month to purchase a gift card. "He's getting thin," said Hoxmeier, 37, a mother of three who lives in Murrieta, Calif. "He can use food."
Retailers and industry analysts alike say Christmas shopping at the grocery store is growing in popularity. Among consumers purchasing gift cards, grocery stores are expected to rank fourth behind discount, department and drug stores this holiday season, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation.
"Grocery stores have long been the ones open late, or at certain hours, during the holiday season for last-minute shoppers," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the trade group. "Now, as they're offering gift cards and books and DVDs, people are expanding on the idea of the grocery store providing more than just food for the holiday meal."
For shopper Matt Halton, a stop at the Pavilions in Seal Beach, Calif., this week meant wrapping up his holiday shopping: two $25 Starbucks gift cards for his brother, who works in real estate; and a $100 prepaid Visa card and a trio of cooking magazines for his daughter, who has been learning to cook after being laid off from her sales job this summer.
"It can get expensive going to the grocery store," Halton said. "It's nice to know they'll use these."
Christmas shopping at the supermarket is an attitudinal shift food retailers are eager to encourage. Consumers at Whole Foods Market and Bristol Farms stores are snapping up gift cards, and stepping up purchases of sweets, bottles of wine and baskets stuffed with seasonal snacks, according to company officials.
"I'm seeing requests for grocery store cards everywhere," including on "angel" trees at community centers, said Kendra Doyel, spokeswoman for Ralphs. "I knew they were popular, but this year, it seems they're more so."
"What's different this year, such as with the grocery cards, is people are recognizing that gift cards can come from the heart," Grannis said. "If people can't shop for themselves, then gift cards are giving them a way to buy something they normally wouldn't have bought for themselves."