Post-game Analysis: Lessons from This Year's Christmas Frenzy

Usually I'd get my Christmas shopping done by the end of November, but this year, my heavy courseload and finals really ruined my schedule. I didn't get everything I needed until 2 days before Christmas, and in one case, merely hours before (but it's not all my fault--it's UPS). Still, I'll give myself some credit for finishing in time. Here's a mix of what I did, what I would have done differently, or things I didn't do but might help for next year's Christmas shopping. Not at all useful now, but I feel the need to document this and will re-post them for next Christmas. It might help to keep these in mind for next year's shopping (which starts now with the after-Christmas sales, if you're a year-round shopper like me or still need to get gifts for friends for after-Christmas gift exchanges).

1) In my frenetic rush to finish my shopping, my friend gave me a great reminder: never grab something out of your price range just so you get done. That's how a lot of stores (through pushy sales associates) get you in your frazzled, vulnerable state. You're tired, time is short, and you just want to get done and go home soooo bad. Suddenly those persuasive tones of "he/she'll love it," "this is a really good price" sound very reasonable. However, when it comes to your wallet, be generous to your friends, family, and charities, not to the stores. Be patient, keep yourself psyched by remembering that shopping is a game of sorts; you want to win, and if you stay focused, you'll reap the glories of praises for thoughtful gifts while secretly gloating about how little you spent.

2) If you're going to a mom and pop type of store, engage in shameless haggling. You can't do that for chain stores, and I feel bad about doing this to independent sellers, but mom and pop stores oftentimes sell things for more than chains. Besides, they're running a business, so they aren't stupid and won't sell things to you at a loss unless they had to. Here are 2 examples. The first is what I did that this weekend with my hairdresser (well, not dealing with gifts, but you'll get the idea). She charged me a very low price the last few times I went, even said I was silly for asking her how much on my last trip, but she charged me $5 more this time when I didn't ask. I protested, asking her about what happened to the usual price. I got my usual price. The lesson here is that if you're a usual patron, you have some leverage in getting a lower price in exchange for a long-term business relationship. The second example is what my parents did in finishing their Christmas shopping. You see, haggling is an art nurtured by my family because we've always been poor (hopefully that'll change in the next few years); necessity is a force that obliterates any embarassment I may have in bargaining (my parents have no qualms about it). Last week they went to some random mom and pop store they read about in the newspapers that sold objets d'arts. Some pieces were marked, while others were not, including one beautiful vase. The opening price was $35, but my parents managed to get it down to $25. My mom said that most of the things were made in China and hence cheap, so the store owners really just mark it up to whatever they want and hope people are willing to pay. I think she's right on the money.

3) Be nice. This will be good for your sanity as well as the sanity of people you have to deal with. I had a huge problem with UPS these past few days. Somehow the tracking said "out for delivery," but I found out hours later that it was "out of service range" and will not be redelivered until the 27th. That was unacceptable, so I called in for a will-call pickup that night. I finished the rest of my Christmas shopping, rushed over to the Downtown LA UPS facility, and to my horror, there was a ridiculously long line. As I approached the pedestrian line (there was a long car line as well), there were lots of yelling and cussing by angry customers at the security guard who was checking for names on the list. The security guard system was meant to expedite the process, but angry, yelling people defeats the purpose. Not only is screaming a futile waste of energy (you're not going to get in or get what you want), but you're holding up the rest of the line (pissing off other people), and you're yelling at someone who is just doing his/her job and has no authority to change protocol. You're effectively making his/her job even harder. Besides, you need to preserve your sanity in order to figure out what to do next. I waited in line for an hour only to be told they couldn't locate my package. I knew better than to yell and instead asked what I could do. Even though that didn't work out, at least the next day I was calm and figured out Plan B: calling UPS for the tracking option, explained my situation to a live person, who had someone from the LA center call me. When the LA people called me, I asked to make sure they had the package physically in their hands before I headed over. In the end, I got my package. So if you're in a shipping snag, don't give up! Stay cool, try different options, and it just might work out. If you're nice, people will be more inclined to help you. As much as getting a gift on time will fall in line with the Christmas spirit, the worst that could happen is that your family member or friend will get the gift a day or 2 late. No one is going to die.

4) On the same UPS vein, don't wait till the last minute for online purchases! The huge volume of boxes would overwhelm any shipping company. This year I learned first-hand how many packages UPS handles during the holidays just by the long wait and the number of people standing out in the cold. Aside from UPS, USPS, or FedEx, there's another bottleneck to the shipping time: the e-tailers themselves. Because so many orders come in, the e-tailers won't be able to process them as quickly as they usually can. It took about 4 days between ordering and the time it took to ship out in my case (usually the gap is only a day or 2). If you are busy and can't avoid it (like me), look for free upgrades or cheap/free shipping! Lots of e-tailers this year (like Bluefly) tried to generate more last-minute business by offering either free upgrades to UPS 2nd day, or if it's good ol' regular ground, free or $1 shipping. While cheap shipping isn't going to get your bargains to you any faster, at least you won't have to shell out regular price for something that's probably not going to get here in time. Still, I learned my lesson. Next year, I won't wait until the week before Christmas to have things shipped to me.

5) Always keep a few giftable trinkets around the house, and be prepared to play Grinch. Sometimes you might forget to get gifts for someone, or you decided just minutes before your gift-wrapping session that a particular gift is inadequate. If you're Mr/Ms Forgetful, or if you realized that what you planned to give to Aunt Dottie isn't suitable for her at all, having those extra trinkets around will help you pull together a nice gift package from scratch. There may also be times you when you have take one thing from one gift to make another look more "plump" (a practice otherwise known as "grinching"). In these situations, you can use a trinket or two to try to make that Grinched gift whole again. People will appreciate getting "more" things, even if "more" is just an illusion. There's a third application of trinkets--if you got a small item (like earrings) as a gift, some people might feel you went cheap on them even if the item costs a pretty penny. Again, cheap trinket supplements (like a nice candle and a lotion, just $2 more total) may bulk up the gift considerably, at least to the eye.

6) Buy "rotatable" gifts. I do this every year. When I buy a single gift, I try to have a couple of people in mind so that I can "rotate" things around if needed; there may be times when you suddenly realize that Eliza's gift may be more suitable for Cousin Mabel. This year, I pulled many a switcharoos because I didn't have as much time to think through gift-buying as usual.

7) If you're the ultimate procrastinator, or your gifts were lost or destroyed by forces you can't control, there's always the 24 hour drugstores that are open on Christmas Day. I went to SavOn to pick up some cosmetics and waited in a loooong line, along with people who were there to buy their 12-pack Coronas and Dora the Explorer dolls (taking last-minute shopping quite literally). These days drugstores are quite sophisticated--I've seen digital cameras, DVD players, CD's and DVD's, toys, and tons of other goodies. Still, remember section 1 from above. If you don't want to spend that much, bath sets and manicure kits for the adults are always utilitarian and appropriate, but stay way from junk like aquarium lamps; remember, cheap does not mean cheapo. Inexpensive drugstore gifts can be supplemented with the aforementioned trinkets to look better.

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