Last-minute gifts: A procrastinator’s guide to holiday shopping

Shop like a pro, even at the last minute.
Shop like a pro, even at the last minute.
Image: Reuters/Christinne Muschi
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For those who celebrate Christmas, this is crunch week. The days and hours to the holiday are counting down, leaving little time to finish—or begin—your shopping.

If that’s you—and there are many of you out there—don’t panic.  To get those presents purchased in time just requires a bit of strategy. Follow these eight tips to get everything bought, shipped, and wrapped in time for Christmas:

There’s still time to get online purchases delivered, but hurry

At many retailers, including Amazon, Target, Toys R Us, and Bed, Bath & Beyond, today is your last day to get your orders delivered by Dec. 25 using standard shipping. Others, such as Best Buy, offer more time. Check out our handy shipping calendar for the dates different retailers give for guaranteed delivery by Christmas.

If you miss the standard shipping window, you can still get expedited shipping, but you’re probably going to have to pay for it, although there are some exceptions.

If you’re an Amazon Prime member, for instance, you get free two-day shipping on orders in the continental US. If you’re not a Prime member, you can sign up for a 30-day free trial to get that free two-day option, as Becky Worley, ABC’s consumer and technology correspondent, points out. Just remember to cancel that subscription in January or you’ll be charged for it.

Other retailers may provide similar trials that come with free expedited shipping.

Or skip delivery and pick up in-store

Many stores will be packed with shoppers this week, making online shopping all the more attractive. But if time pressure is too great, or you’re worried your delivery might get delayed, try buying online and picking up in-store. You get to shop at your leisure while skipping much of the chaos and hopefully getting in and out in a matter of minutes.

If you’re going to brave the stores, shop early in the day

Extra-long checkout lines and throngs of shoppers are two of the biggest stresses of shopping in-store. But many stores are open early and late during the holidays. To dodge the crowds of fellow procrastinators, head in early or late when their numbers thin.

If you can, opt for the early hours. Store staff will organize and restock shelves overnight, making it much easier for you to find what you’re after. By late evening, many items will have been picked over and shelves can be a mess, making it more difficult to find that special something.

To get what you want, buy now. Wait for bargains

As Christmas nears, retailers will bump up the discounts to clear inventory. But as prices fall, people will grab what they can, so the availability of certain items, as well as sizes and colors, will decrease.

Buy the items on your list that are in-demand and specific now, like those sneakers in size 8. But if you’re after bargains—say, a stuffed toy—consider waiting until closer to Christmas. Prices are likely to hit rock bottom on Dec. 24.

Compare deals daily

The last-minute buying rush has retailers competing for your business, so take advantage of the deals.  To do that effectively, you should check websites daily.

“More than in past years, we’re seeing retailers change their promotions,” Casey Runyan, the managing editor at Brad’s Deals, which tracks store offers, told the Chicago Tribune. “They’re throwing up a bigger percent-off code one day or dropping the minimum spend for free shipping another day.”

Grab some gift cards—at a discount

Maybe the item you want has sold out, or you finally realized you won’t find the perfect present. It may be time for a gift card. Granted, it’s not the most personal gift, but it offers the recipient the flexibility to buy what he or she wants, sparing them the hassle of a return or exchange.

You can frequently get deals on gift cards in the run up to Christmas, such as a $50 gift card for $40. Take a look at the section on gift cards at Dealnews for some options, or check the websites of restaurants or brands your intended recipient likes. You can even find good deals on gift cards at your local gas station.

If you’re low on ideas, consider an experience over a thing

Everyone is searching for presents they can wrap and put under the tree, but those aren’t always the best gifts. Research shows that spending money on experiences rather than things often yields greater satisfaction. You get a sense of community from a shared trip, for instance, and there’s an enjoyable anticipation involved. If you aren’t sure what to give, think about an experience you might share with the recipient of the gift. It could include buying tickets to a theater performance in February, or booking a weekend getaway in March.

Hopefully you’re set, but just in case…

A few final points to keep in mind. Liquor may seem like a sure-fire gift in a pinch, but it has been ranked among the least-desirable gifts.

Books can be tough to give without knowing the recipient’s tastes, but they’re inexpensive and can be extremely rewarding. You might consider giving a book and buying a copy for yourself, with the point of reading it together to create a shared experience.

Lastly, clothes are extremely difficult to buy for people, which is why they’re one of the most-returned gifts. It isn’t tough to properly size warm, luxuriously comfortable wool socks, which make an excellent present.