NEW YORK (AP) -- With just a few shopping days left until Christmas, procrastinators find themselves dashing through the stores in search of last-minute gifts. They will have a lot of company.
Nearly a quarter of Americans say they'll still be gift shopping during the final week before Christmas, according to an annual survey by American Express. In fact, 8 percent of Americans -- most of them men -- say they won't even start shopping until then, the survey found. The figures are little changed from 2001.
It's unclear, however, how the stagnant economy will affect holiday spending. Consumers surveyed by American Express estimated their gift costs at $1,073, up $29 from last year. But a similar poll by Myvesta financial counselors found a more-cautious spending estimate of $722, down from $773 last year.
''What they say and what they do can often be two very different things,'' said Steve Rhode, president of Myvesta.
One way to hold the line on spending is to establish a budget and stick with it, said Duane Knapp, author of ''The Brand Mindset.''
For some that translates to a list of all the people they need to buy for, with gift ideas and price estimates. For others, it's a simply a ''let's make a deal'' situation with, for example, a husband and wife agreeing not to spend more than $100 on each other, Knapp said.
''There's enough stress in the season without adding the stress of overspending,'' said Knapp, who heads the advisory firm BrandStrategy Inc. in Anacortes, Wash.
His favorite shopping trick is to focus on buying a single gift for each person.
''Rather than going after five or eight gifts, buy something really special,'' he said.
Nicole Stagg, vice president of iVillage.com, an online women's network, said that last-minute shoppers can often do well ordering by phone or on the Internet.
''There are a lot of places that will guarantee overnight shipping,'' she said. ''But you need to check their policies and their prices for that service because it will add to your cost.''
She added that some sites, like eBay, let shoppers search for sellers in their regions while others deliver from local brick-and-mortar outlets.
''Don't forget that you can order things that don't have to be placed physically under a tree, like a magazine subscription or a membership in one of the monthly 'clubs' for fruit, salsa or even pizza,'' Stagg said.
For those willing to brave the crowds, shopping malls or discount stores like Target and Wal-Mart offer the promise of one-stop shopping, she said.
What should you buy? The American Express survey said that clothing and accessories top the average shopper's list, followed by gift certificates and cash, CDs and DVDs, toys and games, perfume and cosmetics, books, and tools.
Stagg says that gift certificates are an easy way to take care of the hard-to-buy-for people. Many retailers offer them, including video rental stores and movie theaters.
''Food is always a good option,'' she added, suggesting fruit or meat and cheese baskets put together by a local gourmet store.
A number of Internet sites -- iVillage.com, americandream.org, ivyjoy.com -- offer suggestions for homemade and no-cost gifts that even procrastinators can take advantage of. They range from certificates promising ''a gift of time,'' such as monthly baby-sitting or errand-running, to collections of family recipes.
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