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Archive for Monday, December 17, 2001

Last-minute buyers can heed this advice during the Christmas countdown

December 17, 2001

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Dear Mr. Greenspan,

I was going to write a letter to Santa, but this year I decided to write to you instead. What a peculiar holiday shopping season it is! Spray snow and fake holly have made way for sale signs and United We Stand flags. Brenda Lee standards are sharing the airwaves with tunes from "The Concert for New York City." Unemployment is up, consumer confidence is down and you've lowered interest rates again.

Sure, many Americans are singing the wartime yuletide carol, but don't lose heart. The will to shop cannot be broken by floating decimals and percentage points alone. With stores stopping at nothing to lure us to the cash register, it's a buyer's market and I, for one, can barely contain my irrational exuberance.

You can depend on me, a career shopper who could spend the equivalent of the gross national product of Andorra. But to help you and other shoppers make it through this most difficult of economic quarters, remember: The more you spend, the more you save. I give you my rules to shop by:

1. Play dumb, save cash. If you think reading the tax code is difficult, try making sense of this year's bumper crop of discount certificates and coupons: "Purchase a piece of fine jewelry with your left hand between noon and 1 p.m. on a Wednesday when there's a full moon and get 25 percent off." Forget it. To play it safe, play it dumb. Insist to anyone who rings you up anywhere that you have a coupon, you're just not sure where you left it (the Bentley, the Jag, the Beemer?). If there's a special offer to be had and they have even a smidgen of holiday spirit you'll get a discount.

2. Always ask yourself H-MAT? (How much at Target?) Next time you're shopping at one of those trendy, buzzer-at-the-door boutiques and a $100 tux shirt catches your eye, before you unleash the plastic, stop. Count to 10 and repeat the mantra "H-MAT, H-MAT, H-MAT" until the urge to splurge subsides. When your head clears, you'll realize you saw practically the exact same thing at Target for $16.99. (Trust me, this happened last week.) In one move, you've scored five good gifts for the price of one.

3. Give of yourself, but don't forget to give to yourself. Here's how to rationalize it: Shopping for others often takes longer than you expect. After a hard day's shop at the local mall, I ran out of time to prepare myself for the evening's hot date. So I figured, who needs to go home and change? I found a sequined fisherman's sweater, a pair of velvet pants and a pair of tweed loafers on sale. The only hard part? Confessing to the saleswoman that I would not need a gift receipt.

4. Grab first, spend later. A coupon for a $39 scanner lured my fianc and me to Fry's Electronics ground zero for gadgets. (One of them anyway.) We didn't really need a Microtek ScanMaker 3600 and nobody on our list did either. But with one solitary box left on the shelf, we commenced the five-yard stare down with another couple who were eyeing it. That scanner was looking tastier than a T-bone. I half expected a tumbleweed to roll by. Our eyes locked. They hesitated. I lunged. They lost.

After we took the scanner on a victory lap through the store, we bid it a fond farewell. We never really wanted it in the first place. But at least we know who won the shootout at the electronics corral.

5. A perfect gift is like true love: Once you've found it, never let it go. Take it from Wendy Crystal, a 28-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep. After spending half an hour seeking a gift at Macy's for her finicky mother, she found the perfect pair of black slacks. Then she left them at the register for safekeeping. Mistake. Somebody snatched them. Heading back to the racks for round two, Crystal grumbled, "So many pants, and yet they had to take mine."

6. Don't underestimate the drag coefficient. Lots of things can slow you down backpacks, pets (I actually saw a woman shopping with a parrot perched on her shoulder). And during the holiday season, even the best-behaved toddler can act like a hyper-caffeinated howler monkey. "She wants to touch everything," said Lourdes Galaneno, 32, trying to pry a pink-sequined purse from the fist of her 2-year-old at Old Navy. Galaneno, a retail manager, estimates shopping with her daughter Alexa takes twice as much time as shopping on her own. To take full advantage of this season's deals, go it alone.

7. Focus, focus, focus! How many times have you come home after a day of walking the retail beat only to find that you have nothing more to show for it other than an Ice Blended, a manicure and upper-body bruises from the Brookstone massage chair? Make a list, check it twice and don't forget: only seven shopping days left.

8. Beware of psychological warfare. Nice-smelling stores can induce shopping trances. At Old Navy recently, the store smelled faintly of sugar cookies. Before I knew it, I was actually considering a gold lame cowboy hat for my fianc's 12-year-old niece. The nouveau nostalgia of Restoration Hardware has a similar effect. There, I almost bought a book about sailing knots for my dad, the landlubbingest guy I know. Set a time limit in every store or use nose plugs.

9. Stalking is good for you. To beat parking-lot rage, position your car near an exit and follow that package.

10. Voice mail, the secret shopping weapon. "I don't want anything," the hard-to-gift insist. "Your love is enough." Sure, try putting that under the tree. Pleasing such creatures requires a little sleuthing. So plan a shopping date together and observe. What labels do they listen to at Hastings? What sweaters do they stroke at Banana Republic? Then, when they're not looking, duck behind a concrete planter, make like E.T. and phone home.

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