Shopping Strategies for Last-Minute Holiday Shoppers

last-minute holiday gifts

In true form, I’ve waited until rather late in the game to tackle the ol’ holiday gift list. Figuring out teachers’ gifts, what to get the in-laws and how much my kids need from Santa causes me real trauma, so I’ve pushed shopping way down on my holiday priority list. (Isn’t it better to bake cookies instead?) And combined with a new job and a recent move, I just don’t have the mental space to wrap my head around the inevitable swirling of Christmas-time buying, spending, regretting and returning.
 
Because I dread it so much, I’ve picked up some tips over the years about how to pull off holiday giving even if you’ve waited until the last minute to shop — or if you’re just an average gift-buying procrastinator like most humans. This year, I’ve even pulled in professionals for additional advice.
 
Take heart. You can truly pull something spectacular together at the last minute — and even get a good deal at the same time.

Procrastinator? No Problem

Procrastinator? No Problem

In true form, I’ve waited until rather late in the game to tackle the ol’ holiday gift list. Figuring out teachers’ gifts, what to get the in-laws and how much my kids need from Santa causes me real trauma, so I’ve pushed shopping way down on my holiday priority list. (Isn’t it better to bake cookies instead?) And combined with a new job and a recent move, I just don’t have the mental space to wrap my head around the inevitable swirling of Christmas-time buying, spending, regretting and returning.
 
Because I dread it so much, I’ve picked up some tips over the years about how to pull off holiday giving even if you’ve waited until the last minute to shop — or if you’re just an average gift-buying procrastinator like most humans. This year, I’ve even pulled in professionals for additional advice.
 
Take heart. You can truly pull something spectacular together at the last minute — and even get a good deal at the same time.

Take Advantage of Free or Discounted Shipping

Take Advantage of Free or Discounted Shipping

Just because you procrastinate doesn’t mean you need to pay exorbitant shipping charges — especially if it doubles the price of the item itself. For a yearly $79 membership, Amazon Prime offers free two-day shipping as long as you’re buying directly from Amazon. (Look for the golden check with the blue “Prime” next to it; the free shipping isn’t offered by Amazon’s third-party sellers). With the membership, you also get unlimited streaming of selected movies and TV shows and free Kindle book borrowing, making an Amazon Prime membership not a bad choice for a present, either.  
 
ShopRunner offers free two-day shipping at over 80 stores, like Lord & Taylor, Toys “R” Us and Radio Shack. ShopRunner members also get free shipping on returns for purchasing holiday gifts. Make sure you order gifts at least two days in advance to avoid shipping charges. (Hint: This year, you’re safe if you place your order by midnight December 21). 

If it’s getting down to the wire and you’re desperate and willing to pay shipping, most online retailers can send your package in time for Santa’s arrival if you order by midnight, December 23 (but double-check!). Amazon also offers one-day shipping for Amazon Prime members, making Monday, December 23, your cut-off date. You will have to pay for shipping, though at considerably lower rates. Amazon also offers Local Express Delivery on December 24 in select cities.

What Not to Buy

What Not to Buy

Before you embark on last-minute holiday shopping, take note of what’s no longer fair game. Avoid ordering large items, such as a 72-inch flat-screen TV or a treadmill because free two-day shipping often does not apply

And mark off your list anything that needs to be customized — say, monogrammed shirts or an engraved flask. In the holiday season, you just can’t depend on those things coming on time. This also includes personal computers that need to be created with specifics in mind.

Gift an Experience

Gift an Experience

Try as you might, you still can’t think of what to buy your brother-in-law — and the December days are passing quickly. Think about what this hard-to-buy person on your list likes to do, then think of a quirky label for him. March Madness Freak? Closet Picasso? From basketball tickets to painting classes, it’s easy to locate an experience in the area where he lives. And in addition to showing the giftee that you’ve considered his personality and tastes, buying an experience can be done instantly from the comfort of your couch — no matter how close you’re cutting it.
 
“Traditional retailers are getting serious competition from people gifting ‘local experiences,’” says Landy Ung, CEO and founder of 8coupons. And fortunately, the deals are heating up as we edge closer to Christmas as retailers try to sell inventory and finish strong financially for the year. Ung’s company, 8coupons, aggregates tons of zip code-specific deals on sites such as Groupon and LivingSocial, so that you can search for deals near the giftee. 

Shop at Discount Big-Box Stores

Shop at Discount Big-Box Stores

Stores like TJMaxx, Marshalls, Home Goods, Ross or Big Lots are goldmines because they offer a wide range of merchandise, from clothes to housewares, toys and food, says Michelle Madhok author of “Wear This Now: Your Style Solution for Every Season and Any Occasion,” and founder of SheFinds.com. But they sell them for a fraction of the price.

“These types of stores are also great for gift hunting because they get new merchandise every week so they won't be as picked over as other stores that only get one shipment at the beginning of the season.” These are also great places for hard-to-find hostess gifts for that last-minute party invitation. Think: coffee that smells like nutmeg and spice, note cards, bamboo cutting boards, candles galore — and often gift bags and paper for a snappy presentation. 

Buy by Theme

Buy by Theme

If a demanding client zapped all your shopping time, you’re already on location at your annual family visit and you’re beyond two-day free shipping, your options are the drugstore and the grocery store. Madhok has a solution: “Buy in theme. Give a movie night. Fill a bowl with candy, popcorn and soda and print out an iTunes gift certificate for a movie.”
 
You can still buy a number of gift cards online — even on December 25. How about a spa treatment to counteract the holiday tension? Wrap up some sweet-smelling soap and a scrub brush from the drugstore and present the certificate or directions on how to download the app to the giftee’s phone. Voila!

Give a Promise

Give a Promise

This quick gift requires minimal time, but maximum thought, and hearkens back to the love coupons you used to give mom when you were a kid. Think about what your intended truly wants. Maybe your husband would love a night with his best guy friends (who also aren’t great at planning). Arrange the night yourself, indicating the exact date or week. Tear out a symbolic photo from a magazine or print out one online that represents the gift. Write a short, clever note, wrap it up or put the message in a card. 

Would your mom like a weekend with the grandkids? Give her a card indicating the range of dates they are available, tell her you’ll arrange transportation and throw in a gift certificate to the kids’ favorite restaurant. Done.

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