Holiday Shopping: You Better Watch Out

Keep your eyes open for bargains during holiday shopping blitz

At this point in the year, the unholy intersection of holiday shopping and final exams is enough to drive an already stressed-out collegian over the edge. However, with the right advice, a reasonable budget and a few non-school related hours to spare, even you can find the perfect gifts for family, friends, co-workers and pets and still come through with a killer GPA. Here are some tips, rules, suggestions (and secrets!) designed to make your holiday shopping experience less painful and a lot more fun.

PLANNING Before you hit the malls, devise a shopping plan that is feasible, reasonable and, most of all, fun. You'll have a better experience if you go shopping with a list of actual items, names of recipients, and/or goals for that day. Keep in mind that if you choose to go shopping with others, make sure their goals and budget are pretty similar to yours, so as to avoid shopping fatigue, frustration and boredom for them (or you). Planning should cover four areas:

1. Location. Think ahead about where you want to do your holiday shopping. Most likely your options will include indoor and strip malls, free-standing stores (think Georgetown) and smaller boutiques. Think about transportation and how you will handle large, heavy shopping bags on a train, bus or on foot.

2. Date & Time. Once you've determined a shopping location, think about which days and times will be busiest. If you like getting into the holiday spirit and shopping with hordes of people, a Saturday or Sunday between noon and 5 p.m. will probably see the most traffic. If the thought of rubbing elbows with hundreds of overzealous shoppers makes you want to Hulk out, you should probably try to strike out on a weekday in the morning or early evening when most people are at work.

3. Purpose & Goals. To make the most of your holiday shopping time, go equipped with a list of recipients, stores and gifts you need to check off by the end of your trip.

4. Budget. This is the most important element of shopping for the college student whose primary source of income is probably some chained-to-a-desk work-study job. To prevent buyer's remorse and other financial woes, come up with a reasonable budget that will allow you to buy something for everyone on your list - and also buy you a Metro farecard to get back home.

BARGAIN HUNTING Many college students are probably living on a no-frills budget that leaves even the refrigerator virtually empty, except for a well-stocked beer supply. Fortunately, D.C. understands the needs of its bargain shoppers. Here's a quick summary of bargain opportunities:

Start your bargain-hunting expedition in Friendship Heights, just a few blocks from Tenleytown. There, in the 5000 block of Wisconsin Avenue, you'll find some of the thriftiest bargains of the season at TJ Maxx, Filene's Basement, Loehmann's and Stein Mart. These stores all have the same basic design: surplus and/or irregular clothing, home d?cor, shoes, jewelry and beauty products from top-brand designers at affordable prices. Girls can find Express jeans in TJ Maxx, for example, for $17. Note, however, that Filene's and Loehmann's tend to be a little more expensive than their competitors because they carry more couture labels like Fendi, Gucci and Miss Sixty.

Venture out a little farther, and hit Pentagon City Mall for Marshall's and Forever 21. Marshall's is very similar to TJ Maxx, and Forever 21 is a trendy "party" store with enough sparkly tube tops and plastic jewelry to make someone on your list very happy. You can also go for trendier bargain buys at one of D.C.'s two H&M stores, which have what seems like an endless supply of Euro-inspired blazers, hats, jewelry, bags, sunglasses and shoes all priced from around $2 to $150.

Check the Sunday edition of The Washington Post for sale ads and coupons from stores like Hecht's, Lord & Taylor, Target and Best Buy. Taking a few moments to clip some coupons or read an ad can help buy that milk and bread you've been meaning to get since last week. If you're really desperate, you can wake up at the crack of dawn and go to one of the department stores "doorbusters" sales that are usually scheduled from around 5 or 6 a.m. until about noon.

During more normal waking hours, many stores also have regular, reasonable sales. Some like the Gap, American Eagle and J. Crew update and replenish their sale racks every two weeks or so. To get the best deals, it's important to do some comparison shopping between different stores and even different malls. Stores will often let you put items on hold (usually for 24 hours) while you decide which sweater you picked out for your dad is the best bang for your buck.

One of the cool things that the Gap, Inc. does in all of its stores (i.e.: Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic) is offer price adjustments on any item that is marked down lower no more than two weeks after you buy it. For example, about two weeks ago I bought suede heels at Banana Republic for $50, and just days later they were marked down to $30. The next time I was in the store, I simply took my receipt in and got $20. It happens more than you think, so keep your receipts handy.

Most stores tend to be more understanding than usual during the holiday season and will often allow you to return items without a receipt for store credit or an even exchange. These days store credit often comes in the form of a gift card, so make sure you're fully aware of expiration dates and non-activity fees if you're not going to use your credit right away. Be warned, however, that some stores like Target and Forever 21 have strict return policies that may discourage you from trying to take back that purple beret altogether. (Keep this in mind when you shop for others - all your decisions won't be winners.)

If the thought of going back into a store, even if it's in your favor, sounds as pleasurable as riding the Metro naked from Greenbelt to Branch Avenue, you are left with one more doable, but less desirable option: re-gifting. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, it's just what it sounds like - re-giving some crap you didn't want or couldn't use to someone else. Yet, it's not as easy as it sounds. First of all, you have to think, "Would ANYONE I know want a Hilary Duff CD/poster combo pack?" If the answer is a resounding no, donate the aforementioned crap to a charitable cause. But if you get lazy toward the end of your shopping list and need to make amends, re-gifting won't kill you-unless you ignore a few key rules.

If you're re-gifting clothing, make sure it's clean and that the tags are still on. If it's jewelry, make sure all the clasps work properly and that it's not tarnished. To avoid any potential embarrassment, re-wrap the "stepchild gift" and remove any traces of your former relationship to it, including all gift tags and gift bags. One of the trickier aspects of re-gifting (especially among family) is making sure that the original giver cannot possibly see, hear about, or get wind of the new recipient. You must be very 007 about the whole affair. If you do get caught though, don't say I didn't warn you.

I would advise against re-gifting anything that a person handmade for you. Even if you can't imagine where you'd put the lopsided, bright pink candy dish your cousin made for you at Seize the Clay, keep in mind that he slaved over it for a least a whole Saturday afternoon, and, hey, you're hard to shop for.

Re-gifting can be rewarding, if executed properly. You receive and give in one fell swoop, all the while deceiving those closest to you. And in the end, isn't that what the holidays are all about? With that, I bid you a happy re-gifting experience and hope that you'll keep your fingers crossed for my sister and me this Christmas. Who knows? After the break, you just might get that acid-washed jumpsuit I saw you eyeing last week. You can thank me later.

HORRIBLE GIFTS My younger sister and I were talking a few weeks back about what we hoped to get for Christmas this year. After recalling some of the lamest gifts we've received over the past few years, we prayed that this holiday would operate on a "cash-only" system. Ever since I started high school nearly 10 years ago, she and I have suffered through boring jewelry, ugly purses, redundant beauty kits and one ubiquitous stuffed animal. It seems that as we get older, the growing generation gap between us and some of our older relatives like grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles makes giving and receiving that much harder.

While in the spirit of yuletide, merrymaking and all that other heartwarming stuff, it's hard to turn to dear Aunt Joan and say, "Gee, just what I always wanted-an ugly patchwork vest." That brand of brutal honesty just doesn't sit well under the tree. So, what's a girl to do? If you answered bite the bullet and wear the vest, stop reading now-I can't help you.

Fortunately, for you anti-vest wearers, there are a few options. If your gift-giver followed good shopping etiquette and included a gift receipt with whatever monstrosity they decided you'd just love, you're in luck. Returning those God-awful Scooby-Doo slippers will be a snap and you'll be able to walk out with a trendy new shirt or some cool jewelry the next day. If, however, Grandma Bea and Grandpa Stan forgot to ask the people at Dress Barn for a gift receipt to accompany your yellow stirrup pants, sending those bad boys to fashion heaven (or hell) may not be so easy.

This is the first in a three-part series on holiday shopping. Have no clue what to get your parents, your pet or your significant other? Check out the next installment of the Holiday Shopping Guide for advice on the right gifts and stores for the poor souls that made your list.

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