Tag: christmas shopping
University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik gets in the holiday spirit a little earlier every year, and she’s not happy about it.
Just this past week it hit. I considered the steps involved in hiring help for a marketing project I’m working on and thought, This’ll never get done until after the holidays.
Already an uncarved pumpkin sulks on my front porch. Beside my computer lies a free magazine full of Thanksgiving recipes. When I drove my daughter and her friends to Jo-Ann Fabrics for costumes last weekend, the airheads on Z-103 were yapping about their reindeer sweaters. For all productive purposes, the year is over. Only the most dedicated among us will accomplish anything besides gaining weight, wasting money, and managing stress until January.
On Saturday morning, I first found Santa in a nearby park in Hampden, sitting next to a baseball diamond, with two elves. He was handing out free presents. I decided to ask the question that had been bugging me. It went something like this:
You’re Santa. The North Pole is melting. The economy is flat-lined. Parents may have just had their Humvee seized. What happens when the kid asks you to buy an iPad. Is there a sensitive way to place a damper on their more extravagant wishes?
He looked at me through his spectacles, as though I’d just asked him to sit in my lap. “I’m head of the neighborhood group,” he said. “I only do this one day a year,” he said, and declined to be interviewed. Fair enough. So I headed north to Towson, to find a Santa, maybe, closer to the North Pole.
The Santa, on the first floor of Towson Town Center, clearly was doing this as a day job. He had an enormous spread, surrounded by photographers, digital displays, and Poinsettias, richly draped with red cloth. He was a pro. He was lying back in his high-backed chair, with a long line of kids, an army of elves, and a visiting fee. I watched the children bounce on and off his knees, waiting for a chance to get access. Then Santa got up, apparently on break. Now was my chance.
I pushed my way around the exit and held out my digital recorder. Santa’s handler told me that he needed a break, apparently to check on toy production, and he would be back in an hour. I told Santa that I was a reporter and needed to interview him briefly about being Santa in a time of high unemployment and low prospects.
He looked down at me through his glasses, genially but severely. He was about five inches taller than I.
“Santa doesn’t do interviews.” And then with a twinkle, he told me that if I wanted, though, I could line up and get photographed telling him what I wanted for Christmas. For about 20 bucks. That would be in an hour, though. He had to eat lunch. His elf cut me off and guided him through the gate.
I watched Santa heading into the jam-packed hallway towards the food court, which had absolutely nothing to do with toy production. What the hell was that about? I’d been one of his biggest fans. I wasn’t anymore though. Did he even exist? I would have to ask that question while sitting on his lap. And I would get photographed. It would probably go viral. It wasn’t worth it.
The journey to find a Santa who wanted to talk about the paralyzed economy continued.
I headed west. Across Charles Street, right off the Beltway: to Kenilworth Mall. It was smaller and cozier, with an elaborate, old-school electronic train greeting me upon arrival.
There, I ran into a four-year-old neighbor of mine, Audrey, who was watching the train and holding a huge ball of cotton candy. We came up with a deal: I would tell her where Santa was, and she and her mom would get me access. I wouldn’t have to sit on his lap. She could ask him for a present.
The Santa Experience was on the second floor of Kenilworth Mall. The Santa Claus himself didn’t have the intimidating charisma of the Towson Town Claus. He was shorter, plumper, and a little easier to approach. Audrey lined up with her mom. I asked her what she planned on getting for Christmas, but she grabbed her mom’s leg. “I’m shy,” she explained.
But she did help me squeeze by the elves and through the barriers. She completed the photo shoot, on Santa’s knee whispering something off the record in his ear. Now was my opportunity. I revealed to Santa that I wasn’t her dad, I was an undercover investigative journalist interviewing for Baltimore Fishbowl.
Unemployment is hovering around 10 percent. How do you stop kids from driving their parents into the poorhouse?
Santa had no immediate comment. But I was directed to his handlers, a pair of photographers who were running this Santa Experience. Mike, a friendly and talkative assistant, talked to me a little about the business, Class Images. The emphasis on the experience, with more lap time, and not just on the transaction itself.
“So we want the kids to have a lot more quality time with Santa. With other malls, it’s in and out quick, but we want kids to talk to Santa — we want Santa to interact with the kids. We really want them to leave with a positive experience.”
The current Santa, he said, is “Santa Pat,” the breakfast Santa. “He actually works for the federal government.” Santa in the afternoon is Santa Dave. “He’s actually a college professor, who teaches criminal law at the University of Maryland.” Their third Santa, Santa Carmen, is from Pennsylvania. “We found him in a parking lot, and we walked up to him and told him, we want you to be Santa.” He emphasized that, like everyone in the industry, they did background checks on all the Santas.
He had to break for a moment. A one-year-old had started screaming in Santa’s lap. That was taken care of. He continued.
“Some of the other Santas, in the big malls, it’s ‘Get a picture, and you’re gone.’ Of course, the pictures are part of the experience, but the real part is sitting on Santa’s lap, asking him for a present or having him or her ask, ‘How was your year?’”
But what if it has been a lousy year for the parents? How has the economy changed Santa’s approach?
“That’s a good point. And it’s a very valid point today. They get the questions like that all the time. Our Santas are instructed to say this: ‘Santa will try and do his best. But everything that Santa is going to give you is going to be one special gift this year.’ It’s hard when that child asks for an iPad. But we instruct our Santas, especially if you see that expression in their mom’s eyes, you tell the child, ‘Whatever you get, it’s going to be especially made for you.’”
Of course, kids aren’t the only ones who have to ratchet down expectations. As Mike explained, Santa has had to tighten his own belt a few notches.
“Now, times are tough. So this year, it’s our Dollar Store mentality. We lower the package 30 percent (from $35 to $20). In today’s economy, that’s really important. We shopped from Virginia to Pennsylvania to make sure we met every competitor out there.”
Towson Town Mall, he noted when pressed, hires a nationwide Santa Claus company. “So thanks for supporting a local business,” he said, shaking my hand.
Mission accomplished, I headed to the food court. I grabbed two slices of cheese pizza. I had gotten the answer I needed. But still, something didn’t ring right about his answer.
Wait. Santa Claus is local?
But that would be material for another story.
For me (and my ancestors before me), the day after Thanksgiving has always meant jumbo turkey sandwich, nap, movie, repeat. More ambitious Americans evidently embrace the busiest shopping day of the year, when sale prices are killer but so might be the crowded superstore. Black Friday has always struck me as the kind of activity that slightly neurotic, type-A morning people pursue.
Whether you passed on Black Friday or not, the busiest shopping season of the year is upon us and Mary Ellen Brown, personal shopper (via her service The Witch and The Wardrobe), counsels us to reassess our long-standing shopping tendencies, reevaluate strategies, and exchange bad spending habits for smart ones, to become grounded and thoughtful consumers.
Habits can be hard to break. For me, the words Black and Friday serve mostly as a bleak reminder I’ve failed to begin my Christmas shopping entirely, and won’t for another two weeks. Why do I wait so late year after year? Well, thinking about shopping for everyone on my list is stressful enough. I want to buy my sister’s four kids totally surprising and ingenious expressions of my love, to make up for almost never seeing them. Instead, I freak out, freeze up, and don’t begin. My lame gift solution is often iTunes certificates for all family members under 60.
At least I’m not alone. Psychotherapist Mikita Brottman says America’s relationship with holiday shopping is downright “anxious, stressful, complicated, ambivalent, and tied up with all kinds of complicated emotions going back to childhood.”
Shopping Personality Types
According to Brown, typical shoppers are either mindful and mature or basically fearful: Some* are post-Turkey-Day early-bird Bargain Hunters who make the money-saving most of Black Friday’s markdowns (of course, if you prefer to shop online, you can roll out of bed today and shop Cyber Monday deals in your PJs); some are Finders who pace themselves and buy precious/thoughtful/glowing gifts all year long, when the right inspiration strikes them; others, like my people, are Procrastinators, pure and simple. Procrastinators may become Binge Shoppers as well. Depending upon our budgets, Bingers will last minute load up on random clearance items (e.g. an extra large neon green hoodie, recipient to be decided) or expensive jewelry or electronics intended mainly to impress, rather than express our heart’s least selfish wishes.
When we Procrastinators prepare to buy a gift for someone we care about, we feel a mixture of excitement and intimidation, not to mention pressure. “We [feel pressure] because the identity of the giver is totally bound up with the gift,” Brottman says. “This gives it a kind of magic power that compels the recipient to return the favor. What we’re really giving is part of ourselves, so we don’t want it to seem cheap or cheesy.”
We may also feel pressured by the salesperson waiting on us.
If you’re of the Procrastinator variety, pressure rules your mind. But Brottman confirms there’s a second sort of unhealthy/anxious shopper type to add to the list, the Addict — the person for whom anxiety prompts purchase (on location and online) of so many unneeded goods on a regular basis that he or she can’t be certain what lies in wait in the closet. When it comes to holiday shopping, chaos ensues. (The Addict a close cousin to the less regular Binge Shopper.)
“You should be worried if you go shopping as a way to self-medicate, as a response to anger or stress — when you find yourself with closets full of unopened and unworn merchandise, when you buy multiple copies of the same item, when you find yourself fantasizing about shopping, planning your next opportunity to go shopping…feeling guilty or ashamed of your shopping behavior, feeling anxious if you haven’t shopped in a while,” Brottman explains. (The chick in L.A. with the pepper spray, who had to get her discounted-Xbox fix, just might fit the profile.)
Encouragingly, Brown says everyone can learn to morph into the mindful, well-paced Finder, who buys thoughtfully and creatively for herself and others, whether or not childhood baggage weighs down her shopping sacks. Brown, who serves as personal shopper to some of the busiest people in Baltimore, believes it’s easiest to learn how to shop well under the guidance of a pro for hire. But since many of us can’t afford the luxury, she hands over an early present now, a smart, doable checklist for becoming our most effective shopping selves. Read, memorize, shop.
Make Lists of Things You Need and People for Whom You Intend to Buy
When you shop for yourself, make a careful list of what’s missing from your closet and, like a marksman, take aim. “With Christmas shopping, make a list of who you’re buying for. Names alone will conjure up enough ideas when you’re in the stores.” Look at each friend’s name, reminisce and free associate about the person as you browse.
Leave Enough Time to Shop and Shop Again
“Set aside a whole day and know that you can go another time. This way, if you don’t find it, you don’t buy it.”
Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Meaningful Items All Year Round
“A lot of the good stuff is gone by December, the stuff that reflects your personality. Be out there and let the stuff find you! I have a friend who buys for her boys in summer.” Another tip: If you’re traveling for business or pleasure, window-shop with the holidays in mind, no matter what time of year it is. In a new city, your eye will be especially alert, and you might find the rare gift of a lifetime.
Be a Finder Who Braves The Sales
“In the department stores, a lot of merchandise will go down in the first markdown by 40 percent. You hit Saks at 8 a.m., you can get some great stuff that might be gone by the afternoon. Two and three weeks later, it’s down another 20 percent, but by then you’ll be left with items nobody wanted.”
Broaden Your Shopping Horizons; Strategize New Locations According to Budget
Look beyond the mall, beyond the department stores. “Go to great alternative places, shop the locally owned boutiques.”
Work Out/Eat Breakfast Before You Shop
When you’ve had breakfast you think clearer; when you’ve worked out, you feel better about your body, in case you spy something you need that you’d like to try on. Which is A-okay any time of year.
Buy for Yourself at the Holidays Guilt-Free
“Yes, it’s really okay! If you rarely shop for yourself, kill two birds with one stone. If you’ve got nice black velvet pants, buy a new blouse. Don’t feel guilty. It’s good time management.”
Listen to Your Inner Voice, Not the Salesperson
“It’s a real mental game. Don’t trust the salesperson — don’t buy something if you feel uncomfortable or don’t like it.”
Remember: Every Gift is a Personal Expression
“When you open something it says a lot about the person who gave it to you,” Brown says. And while she does occasionally purchase gifts for clients to give their friends and family, she draws the line at ultra-personal presents. “I don’t like buying for [clients’] husbands at the holidays. I won’t. It’s too personal.”
To Become a Self-Actualized Shopper, Replace Retail Therapy with Real Therapy
Brottman adds, “It’s so easy to click on a button and send someone an automatic gift rather than taking the time to write a letter, make something by hand or actually to go and help somebody out. Buying a new dress or getting a new haircut is a quick fix, but a poor substitute for actually making real, lasting changes to your life. Objects seem more concrete, more real than ‘inner’ changes that might be far more substantial but can’t be seen to the outside observer or in the mirror.”
(*Shopper type nicknames were devised by reporter not professional shopper.)