NEW YORK (AP) Some people shop all year around so they're ready with just the right gifts when the holiday season arrives.
But for most, the weeks leading up to Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa require a lot of dashing from store to store or heavy use of the Internet to gather presents for relatives and friends.
A little planning can help consumers avoid spending too much and make shopping more fun.
Dave Brennan, a professor of retailing and marketing at the University of St. Thomas College of Business in St. Paul, Minn., says consumers should start by deciding how much they can afford to spend, then setting a limit for each gift they plan to buy.
''The biggest problem is that a lot of people start to compromise once they get into a store,'' Brennan said. ''They pay more than they wanted, or they're attracted to things on special and deviate from their list.
''You need to make a plan and stick with it.''
To try to avoid temptation, it's best to shop earlier in the day when you're still fresh, he said. And if you're looking for an enjoyable experience, it's best to go on a weekday rather than on a weekend, when stores and malls are overcrowded.
Polly Holcombe, 40, of Carpinteria, Calif., is among those who shop for the holidays year-round. Her job in high tech takes her to Europe and Asia, so she's ''always on the lookout for special things.''
Holcombe believes that whether purchased early or late, gifts should be meaningful to those receiving them.
''I try to pay attention to what my friends and my family are saying and doing,'' she said.
So a friend taking a night school course or a sister buying a house can trigger ideas for gifts, she said, adding that ''They'll look at you and say, 'How did you know that I needed that?'''
Holcombe also will ask people what they want.
''Sometimes I'll give my mother options, as in 'Here are three ideas I have for you,''' Holcombe said. ''Then you know for sure you're getting something they want.''
She also likes the idea of gifts that can be linked.
''A dear cousin bought me a high-end and badly needed wine glass, and another the next year and another the next,'' Holcombe said. ''I really appreciated that.''
Robyn Freedman Spizman, author of ''The GIFTionary An A to Z Reference Guide for Solving your Gift-Giving Dilemmas Forever,'' advises people to strategize and personalize and buy within their budget.
Say you want to give a gift to your boss, who has small kids. Spizman suggests:
Give him a card for a Blockbuster video rental with a note saying ''You're a blockbuster of a boss.''
Or give him a single DVD, like ''Finding Nemo,'' which would appeal to his children.
Or, if you can spend more, buy a basket and fill it with DVDs for his family to enjoy over the holidays.
Spizman also suggests shoppers can save a lot of time by buying the same gift for a number of people and ''customizing'' them with heartfelt notes. She's also a fan of gift cards, which allow recipients to choose what they want.
Her bottom line, however, is that consumers shouldn't overspend at the holidays so that they start the year burdened by debt.
There are, after all, many gifts that don't cost a lot but can mean a lot, Spizman said. You can, for example, give home-baked cookies or personalized stationery created on your home computer. Or you can promise to take someone on a hike or to a movie or to a spa.
The experts see bth pluses and minuses when it comes to those last-minute dashes to the mall.
Spizman calls it ''the gift cyclone'' and warns: ''You're spinning around, stressed out, fighting heavy traffic in the mall, overspending. Then you lose the spirit of giving.''
But Brennan, the Minnesota professor, argues that waiting until the last minute to shop isn't necessarily bad.
''Over the last three holiday seasons, buyers who waited have been rewarded by closeout sales that started before Christmas,'' he said. The downside, though, is that ''as a result, they tend to buy even more,'' he said.
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