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A Survival Guide for Last-Minute Shoppers

Geoff Williams
FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2013 file photo, a shopper who declined to give his name waits outside a Kmart store for it to open in Anaheim, Calif. Some retailers, disappointed by sales so far during the holiday shopping season, are staying open for up to 81 hours straight, starting the weekend before Christmas. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Ashley McNamara speaks for many people when she says, "I am a chronic last-minute shopper."

For the past 10 years, the 34-year-old Los Angeles resident has done all of her Christmas shopping two to three days before Dec. 25, "in a frenzy of stress, money and Christmas lists," she adds. "I hit the malls, Ross, the 99-cents only store, Cost Plus World Market and others, in a desperate attempt to nail everything and everyone on my Christmas list, from the time I get out of the office until I collapse at home around midnight."

Christmas Eve, she says, is usually an all-night affair at her sister's house, with both of them wrapping gifts, mostly for McNamara's 15-year-old daughter and her three nieces and nephews. The sisters typically finish at 5 a.m., one hour before the kids wake up.

"Every year, I tell myself I'll start buying presents early ... and every year my ambition fails, and I end up in a rush," McNamara says, adding that she can't help it - she owns an online jewelry company, purepearls.com, and spends most of her waking hours in December bogged down in orders.

[Read: 7 Tips for Coping With Holiday Financial Stress.]

McNamara isn't alone. According to a new survey by Chase Blueprint, more than a third of Americans say they'll do most of their 2013 holiday shopping at the last minute, with men being the main procrastinators at 44 percent, versus 27 percent of women. And the younger you are, the more delayed-prone you tend to be. Among millennials, 42 percent said they are last-minute shoppers, compared to 33 percent of Generation Xers and 32 percent of baby boomers.

There are many reasons consumers procrastinate, of course. Some, like McNamara, are too busy; others feel the best deals come at the last minute. And some consumers juggle paychecks and simply can't buy gifts sooner. However you wound up in the last-minute category, if you're now looking at the calendar and wondering how you're going to manage it all, here are some suggestions.

Make a list. If you don't know what to put on it, and you have more than a day to shop - perhaps two - take your tablet, smartphone or pad of paper and start visiting stores and taking notes of what looks promising. No need to buy anything yet. That's what Emily Senk, a public relations professional in San Francisco, does.

"I just want to see what's out there," says Senk, who spends two or three hours on her scouting mission at the local shopping center. "Then, typically a week before Christmas, sometimes the day before, I head to all the shops that carry the gifts I've decided on."

She says she generally spends a couple of hours on one day searching for gifts, and another two hours on another day picking everything up. If you don't have time for a scouting mission, hopefully you've been researching online for ideas.

Don't bring the kids. "Until I was old enough to find my way out of the craziness, I spent Christmas Eve - until the stores closed - with my father... looking for the perfect gift for Mom," says Laura Lucas, a Seattle resident and founder of footvote.com, a website aimed at helping consumers find and support products made in the U.S.

If you bring the children, Lucas says, you risk scarring them and turning them into adults who shop for Christmas and other special occasions two or three months in advance, "which is also a bit odd."

But kids will also slow you down, and if you're truly a last-minute shopper, you don't have time for that.

Choose stores with liberal return policies. If you're going from store to store in a hurried daze, this may not be a practical plan, but Lucas suggests it because "when you are shopping close to Christmas, the exact color, style or size may not be available - or, you may not be sure what is best, and you won't have time to check and go back."

Too rushed to think straight? These ideas may help.

-- Give an add-on gift. Joel Adams, an entrepreneur and consultant in Louisville, Ky., has discovered what he calls the "add-on" gift in recent years.

"Last year, my best friend got his first iPad and complained about it never being in his hand when he wanted it, so it felt less than useful," says Adams, who bought his friend a case that comes with a strap, so his pal can carry it around wherever he goes.

A gift that improves a purchase your friend or family member already made is "mostly fail-proof," Adams says. This is especially true for gadgets.

-- Go with useful. "Rather than struggle to find the perfect gift for someone, think practicality," suggests Claudia Lombana, a consumer expert who has been a spokesperson for several big-name brands, including eBay, PayPal and currently Wal-Mart.

"A new set of towels, for example, is something most anyone can use," Lombana says. "Who doesn't like nice, new towels?"

-- Give an experience. This is a suggestion from Jessica Jessup, co-founder of Giftovus.com, a free social media site designed to help people find the perfect gift for a friend or family member.

[Read: 10 'Experience' Gifts That Keep on Giving.]

Jessup cites research from the University of Pennsylvania that found giftees feel a stronger connection to the giver if the gift provides an experience, like concert tickets or kayaking lessons. And if you think about it, it's the perfect gift for a last-minute purchase: You go to, say, the local yoga studio's website and buy some yoga sessions, print out the receipt and put it in a card.

Don't feel tied to your list. Instead, use your list as a guide.

"Go in with an open mind on what the giftee would like," says John Talbott, associate director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing at Indiana University-Bloomington. That way, Talbott says, you're more likely to find something that's on sale and something your giftee will still like.

And look for deals, because they will be out there, Talbott says. In many stores, "an entire month of January doesn't have as much foot traffic as a week in December," he says. "So if you own a business and don't get inventory off the shelves, you're dead."

[See: 10 ways to Upgrade Your Finances in 2014.]

So there's no reason to kick yourself for waiting until the last minute to shop. You may feel stupid, but you're actually quite smart, as long as you haven't found yourself at a store, with its intercom blaring and lights flashing, and you still have a dozen or so gifts left to buy. In which case - what were you thinking?

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