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Holiday giving: Picking the perfect present

How to pick a gift that won't be put in a closet and forgotten

By Ann Hoevel

How to pick a gift that won't be put in a closet and forgotten

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) - Holiday shoppers spend the shortest days of the year, despite cold weather and endless checkout lines, frantically scrounging in malls, boutiques and discount stores in search of the perfect present. But will they ever find it?

Not unless they have the right approach, says Sherri Athay, co-author of "Present Perfect: Unforgettable Gifts for Every Occasion," a book aimed at helping confused buyers.

"I don't like when people use 'It's the thought that counts' when they give a gift, because it's an excuse. It means they didn't really think," Athay says. Spending time thinking about the person you're buying for and the meaning behind the gift is much more important than how much money it costs, she believes.

In order to find the perfect present for every person on your holiday list, you must carefully consider each person's likes, dislikes and what kind of sentiment the gift conveys.

But in this fast-paced, coffee-buzzed, multimedia society, who has time to think? Often the best a holiday shopper can do is to scribble down a list and drive to the nearest store.

Once there -- bombarded with holiday music and decorations - even the most determined shopper can panic. According to Athay, part of the "stress of the holidays is the sheer volume of gifts available in stores."

Faced with shelves full of wintry merchandise, the frustrated holiday shopper must turn to someone for help.

Lauren Beardsley says she will
Lauren Beardsley says she will "continue to shop until I feel like I've found the perfect gift."

Thomas Barker, a senior buyer for Metropolitan Deluxe, experiences this every year as he counsels customers in the company's 10 gift and housewares stores throughout the Southeast. "We don't just start randomly suggesting gifts," Barker says.

The first thing Barker asks shoppers is "who they're buying a gift for." The sales associates try to help the customer come up with a list of their gift recipient's different interests, he explains. Only then will he try "to match that up to something in the store."

Athay agrees.

In her book she suggests starting with this simple list of questions: Do they like practical or extravagant gifts? What style of clothing do they wear? What are their hobbies or interests? What kind of things do they collect? What are their dislikes? What inside jokes do you share with this person? What are your shared experiences?

Whether you brainstorm over these questions before leaving home or with the help of a salesclerk, Barker says visiting a boutique may help you find a more accurate match to your recipient's personality.

"We're very much more personal," Barker says. "We can react a lot faster than the 'big bucks' stores, stock the shelves more often, replenish more frequently and get new and more innovative items a lot faster ... People feel more personally helped here."

Some of the gifts Barker suggests include personal-care products like bubble bath, lotion and bath salts; bedding items like throws, and candles. Unless you pair them with a favorite scent or color, these ideas may not be particularly personal, but are usually appreciated.

Although they're hip and full of personal attention from salesclerks, boutiques fail to offer the one-stop smorgasbord that a mall does.

To put up with the droves of holiday shoppers preparing to elbow their way around overflowing racks of cashmere gloves and brave long checkout lines full of holiday hopped-up children, Athay suggests devising a game plan.

First pick the right time to go. Avoid the added stress of going on the weekends and instead "take a half a day off and shop in the morning," or at 3 in the afternoon. Use a mall directory to plan the shopping trip so that you don't constantly crisscross the mall.

Take something to read while standing in long lines and be polite to aggressive salespeople. "Don't just brush them off or push them aside. Have a short conversation telling them you appreciate their help so you can get it later on," she says.

Despite some of their drawbacks, department stores take steps to speed holiday shoppers on their way.

Neiman Marcus's flagship store in downtown Dallas, Texas showcases Steuben crystal, Kim Seybert linens and Hariland china on its fantasy holiday table setting.
Neiman Marcus's flagship store in downtown Dallas, Texas showcases Steuben crystal, Kim Seybert linens and Hariland china on its fantasy holiday table setting.

"We put our holiday gift items on fixtures in the front and in the aisles so that it's easier for the customer to find them," says Al Oliver, vice president for Home and Epicure at Neiman Marcus, adding that the store also packages some of its holiday merchandise in "great-looking gift boxes so (the customer) can take it home and rewrap it quickly."

Neiman Marcus' specialized holiday merchandise includes its signature ornament collection and some stock market-themed gifts featuring bulls and bears. Oliver says his favorite gift item in the store this year is the wealth wheel, "an item that tells you when to buy new stocks or hire or fire your broker."

But Athay warns holiday shoppers not to be fooled by "the latest and greatest thing advertised in the stores. ,,, Resist the advertising. So many people get gifts and say, 'What relevance does this have to me?'"

Despite all the best intentions on the part of the gift-giver, everyone has a holiday-present horror story.

A gift bought without keeping the recipient in mind results in an unwanted gift. Francisco Garcia, 22, of Guatemala said the worst gift he ever got was a pair of "socks from my grandmother." Lauren Beardsley, 26, from Commerce, Georgia said one gift she got that she never wanted was a "tacky sweater with a reindeer on it." The sentiment behind these unwanted gifts is lost because of their apparent inappropriateness. Athay said, "the perfect gift reflects the giver's attentiveness to the tastes and preferences of the recipient. In essence, it's a compliment that says, 'When I saw this, I couldn't help but think of you!'"

If you don't want give the people on your list the impression that they remind you of socks or reindeer sweaters, don't forget to consider their interests while you're out shopping.

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