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Gift buying? Think outside the mall

By Christy Oglesby

The shops in downtown Decatur, Georgia, are open late and offer discounts and refreshments on Thursdays during the holiday season.
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(CNN) -- Putting off dashing to the mall while grumbling all the way? Worried about soaring bills?

Consider estate sales, flea markets, the Web and independent boutiques or artisan galleries. They boast unique gifts, an emphasis on customer care, dollar-saving deals and most of all shopping sans the seasonal stress.

The mall has gift-gathering benefits -- it's all under one roof, no bolting in and out of inclement weather and food courts for grub in a hurry.

And there's more -- short lines, patient salespeople, thin crowds, Muzak that vacates your mind when you hit the parking lot. Sarcasm noted, right?

Instead, how about riding door-to-door on a fur-lined bus and getting hors d'oeuvres with discounts on unusual items? The merchants in one city outside of Atlanta, Georgia, offer those perks to draw folks out of the malls.

Carols sung by the fire

Wrong assumptions, such as giant markups in boutiques, could drive some buyers to sales in the malls. So in 1998, shopkeepers in Decatur, Georgia, created weekly Terrific Thursdays starting in November.

Discounts help the merchants compete on price, and they've created a relaxed, festive feel as an alternative to mall madness.

Shoppers can park in a central location and hop on a free trolley or retro, fur-lined bus to cruise the shops in the town's one-mile business district.

"It doesn't feel frantic. It's fun!" said Lynn Harris, the marketing and public relations director for the four-square-mile town. "You find really cool gifts, people play music" and some serve beverages and finger foods, she said. "It's like a party."

Local artisans offer unique clothing, international art, pet gifts, knitting supplies and even a gift-list service that's similar to a registry, Harris said. Gift recipients can leave their wish lists with a merchant and tell them to share the lists with buyers who don't know what to get them.

I made it out of clay

Estate sales, flea markets and thrift stores are the places to find reasonably priced art, said Jill Florio, the Living Simply editor for Bellaonline, a Web site for women.

"I have art glass all over my mantle, and I got them ... for around $5," Florio said. "Buying art glass new if you go into a gallery will cost you at least $100 for a nice piece. I have a case where I have Anasazi pottery and some Navajo pottery. I have Hopi kachina dolls that I got for $1."

Giving used gifts saves cash, Florio said, and there's a way to do it successfully. First, tell recipients that's your plan. Second, spend time looking for quality items. Florio, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, is giving the women in her family tote bags that would cost $30 in a mall, but that she bought for less than $4 each.

"In this economy, a lot of people are really budget tight... and you can get some absolutely gorgeous, well-made classy gifts for a fraction of what they would cost new," she said.

In increasing order of price, Florio said, start with garage sales, then thrift stores, consignment shops and finally estate sales. Buyers can save more money, she said, by checking for slight wear and asking for a markdown.

The downside to those places is the recipients' inability to return the gift if they don't like it.

If you still haven't wrapped your head around the idea of used gifts, consider a flea market.

Rich Alvari is the director of sales and marketing for California's San Jose Flea Market, one of the largest in the country. He said the savings could be as much as 20 percent, and the buyer could still be getting a new gift. "Sometimes it's just discontinued merchandise. It may (be) name brand items, just last year's stuff or six-months-ago stuff that's been closed out at bargain rates."

My true love gave to me

Online shopping remains a popular outside-the-mall option, but gift selections don't have to be unimaginative.

Pat Veit sells personalized poems, and about 98 percent of her Illinois-based business' sales come from e-commerce, she said.

"I think poetry is perfect because it's a very personal thing. It's a very touching item to give to somebody," said Veit, co-owner of Poetry Gifts. "Our largest group of selling items is our love poems."

Veit writes 90 percent of the poems, and her company personalizes them with greetings at the end and mounts them in unique frames, including a case that includes freeze-dried roses.

"For Christmas, we specialize in quick delivery," said Veit who started her business 14 years ago. "We have a large number of people in the service who order from us, especially from Iraq."

The mall habit might be a hard one to break, but thrift store prices, online convenience and shop owners stressing holiday hospitality could make withdrawal easier.

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