Tangled Web of online and last-minute shopping

If you're a normal end-of-the-semester student (aka procrastinator), you probably haven't even thought about holiday shopping yet. But with only about a week until winter break, you don't have much time to knock that shopping list out. Fortunately for you, however, the wonders of technology will allow you to clear your list without ever stepping into a store. If, on the other hand, you like shopping, but can't tear yourself away from your studies, online and last-minute shopping will also be the answer to your holiday prayers.

Besides the standard online superstores like Amazon and eBay, there are some lesser-known sites with cool merchandise and reasonable prices. Here are synopses of a few of them. For more information and a longer list of sites, contact me at at5887a@american.edu.

WishingFish.com: This site has an eclectic mix of novelty gifts, bath and beauty products and home d?cor. On the surface, Wishing Fish seems like Urban Outfitters, but more grown-up. Some of its funnier gifts include the "Thank God I'm not ugly" compact mirror, abusive desk stamps and monogrammed toilet paper. Gift-wrapping is $4.95 per item and the cheapest shipping option is $5.95 for ground delivery. Merchandise ranges from $10 to $200, and you can also purchase gift certificates in denominations of $25 all the way up to $500.

ChocolateBarNYC.com: This site belongs to the hip chocolatier in New York City described as an adults-only candy store. The Bar has an array of products and flavors of chocolate, including dark, white, and fruit-flavored with names like, "The Elvis" and "Salted Pretzel." To ensure delivery by Dec. 24, all orders must be made by Dec. 22. The company has several gift sets, like "Fondue for Two" and "Chocolate Tea Time" ranging from $55 to $85. They also sell t-shirts for girls and guys with the sleek Chocolate Bar logo. The candy store also published a book of recipes and tips for entertaining earlier this year, which can be purchased on Amazon.com or in major bookstores.

TeaForte.com: If you have any hardcore tea-drinkers on your list, check out this site, which specializes in silken tea infusers and a variety of tea flavors. The infuser is an aesthetically and practically superior way to make a cup of tea and comes in 10 different flavors, including citrus mint, lemon ginger, and black currant. Gift-able sets come in small, medium and large and range from $5 for two infusers to $24 for 15 infusers. There is free shipping on all orders and higher $75 and is $5.95 for all others using UPS ground service.

Overstock.com: You may have seen the "big O" commercials for this online company that sells clothing, books, movies, music, furniture, shoes, appliances, jewelry, housewares and sports equipment, all at discounted prices. Overstock says it can sell merchandise at a 40 to 80 percent discount because they buy liquidated and surplus products from name-brand manufacturers. You can find the latest CDs and DVDs, as well as a cool collection of international jewelry and furniture for pretty competitive prices. The other bonus is its cheap shipping. Every order ships for $2.95 but can sometimes take seven to 10 days, so plan accordingly. If you check the site pretty regularly you can catch one of many $1 shipping sales.

UncommonGoods.com: This site has a funky mix of cool accessories, housewares and jewelry. Just as its name implies, it has some unique gifts, like a wireless light switch and earrings made from Scrabble pieces. Prices range from $10 to $1,500, and you can buy gift boxes for $3.95 per order. You should look at this site early because several items on the site are either temporarily out of stock or are on back-order. Also, the company has a live chat operator to answer customer-service related questions.

LAST-MINUTE OPTIONS

If you don't trust online shopping, or are looking forward to the adrenaline rush of battling some desperate soccer mom for the last copy of "Mean Girls," try some of these procrastinator-friendly locations:

AU Bookstore. If you end up in the campus store, you'll probably be screwing a lot of people over this year. But, you have to make the best out of a bad situation. You could always go the apparel route, but who besides your parents would want to walk around with some goofy AU sweatshirt? That said, it's probably better to get a funny book or some other non-school affiliated gift, like a blank journal or an address book. Make sure you stop by in the next few days, as the bookstore will be closing soon for the holidays and is closed on the weekends.

Tenleytown/Friendship Heights. When you find some time to break away from your seemingly endless studies, catch the shuttle and head to Tenleytown. Hitting up Best Buy, Container Store and even Payless can go a long way. If you have the time and energy to venture a little farther down Wisconsin Avenue, check out Friendship Heights. There you'll find some good buys at Gap, Ann Taylor, Filene's Basement, Borders, New Balance and Lord & Taylor to name a few.

Airports/Stations. Some airports have a few decent stores, and you can be sure to knock some people off of your list on your way home. Reagan National has the bath and beauty company Crabtree & Evelyn as well as Wilson's Leather, Brookstone and numerous bookstores. For those taking Amtrak, if you get to Union Station early enough you can hit the Limited, Nine West and Express before you head home. Also check out duty-free shopping at Dulles.

Return to Sender A few weeks ago I ordered some dresses from Delia*s, a trendy chain store with an online boutique. I'm not a big girl, so my size range is about a 2/3, or extra-small/small. One of the factors in finding the right size without trying stuff on is past experience with a particular retailer. That said, I've been wearing stuff from Delia*s since high school and was sure the size "small" dress I ordered would fit without a hitch.

Little did I know that this particular dress was manufactured for a malnourished 11-year-old. After trying a few times to get the nearly microscopic piece of fabric over my hips and butt, I conceded and threw that bad girl back in the box. The tragically tiny dress was one of several online purchases that had to be sent back to the pound. Luckily, though, returning it happened to be less of a hassle than peeling it off of me.

Fortunately, online stores try to make returning items relatively easy for their consumers. Like many other companies, Delia*s includes a prepaid mailing label for easy returns. All you have to do is find a box and a post office and you're in business. The only drawback is that even if you received free shipping on the original order, the cost of shipping (usually $5.95) is deducted from your subsequent refund or store credit. Most sites will issue a full refund no more than 30 days after the original purchase date.

Beware of eDressme.com, however. This New York-based store's online return policy claims that a customer's refund or credit is contingent on whether or not it deems an item in need of repair or dry cleaning upon return. So, even if you try something on for a few minutes and don't like it, you may end up paying twice as much for it if you try to return it. Unbelievable!

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