- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Some people shop all year around so they are ready with just the right gifts when the holiday season arrives.

But for most, the weeks leading up to Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa require a lot of dashing from store to store or heavy use of the Internet to gather presents for relatives and friends.

A little planning can help consumers avoid spending too much and make shopping more fun.

Dave Brennan, a professor of retailing and marketing at the University of St. Thomas College of Business in St. Paul, Minn., says consumers should start by deciding how much they can afford to spend, then setting a limit for each gift they plan to buy.

“The biggest problem is that a lot of people start to compromise once they get into a store,” Mr. Brennan said. “They pay more than they wanted, or they’re attracted to things on special and deviate from their list.

“You need to make a plan and stick with it.”

To try to avoid temptation, it’s best to shop earlier in the day when you’re still fresh, he said. And if you are looking for an enjoyable experience, it’s best to go on a weekday rather than on a weekend, when stores and malls are crowded.

Polly Holcombe, 40, of Carpinteria, Calif., is among those who shop for the holidays year-round. Her high-tech job takes her to Europe and Asia, so she is “always on the lookout for special things.”

Miss Holcombe believes that whether purchased early or late, gifts should be meaningful to those receiving them.

“I try to pay attention to what my friends and my family are saying and doing,” she said.

So a friend taking a night school course or a sister buying a house can trigger ideas for gifts, she said. “They’ll look at you and say, ‘How did you know that I needed that?’”

Miss Holcombe also will ask people what they want.

“Sometimes I’ll give my mother options, as in ‘Here are three ideas I have for you,’” Miss Holcombe said. “Then you know for sure you’re getting something they want.”

She also likes the idea of gifts that can be linked.

“A dear cousin bought me a high-end — and badly needed — wine glass, and another the next year and another the next,” Miss Holcombe said. “I really appreciated that.”

Robyn Freedman Spizman, author of The GIFTionary — An A to Z Reference Guide for Solving Your Gift-Giving Dilemmas Forever, advises people to strategize and personalize — and buy within their budget.

Say you want to give a gift to your boss, who has small children. Miss Spizman suggests:

• Give him a card for a Blockbuster video rental with a note saying, “You’re a blockbuster of a boss.”

• Give him a single digital video disc, such as “Finding Nemo,” that would appeal to his children.

• If you can spend more, buy a basket and fill it with DVDs for his family to enjoy over the holidays.

Miss Spizman also says shoppers can save a lot of time by buying the same gift for a number of people — and “customizing” them with heartfelt notes. She also is a fan of gift cards, which allow recipients to choose what they want.

Her bottom line, however, is that consumers shouldn’t overspend at the holidays so and start the year burdened by debt.

There are, after all, many gifts that don’t cost a lot but can mean a lot, Miss Spizman said. You can, for example, give home-baked cookies or personalized stationery created on your home computer. Or you can promise to take someone on a hike or to a movie or to a spa.

The professionals see both pluses and minuses when it comes to those last-minute dashes to the mall.

Miss Spizman calls it “the gift cyclone” and warns: “You’re spinning around, stressed out, fighting heavy traffic in the mall, overspending. Then you lose the spirit of giving.”

But Mr. Brennan, the Minnesota professor, argues that waiting until the last minute to shop isn’t necessarily bad.

“Over the last three holiday seasons, buyers who waited have been rewarded by closeout sales that started before Christmas,” he said. The downside, though, is that “as a result, they tend to buy even more,” he said.

ASSOCIATED PRESS


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