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Good planning key to shopping success

By Jenna Milly

Jewelry, tiny gifts and everything shiny make perfect stocking stuffers and last-minute buys.
Holiday shopping
Financial and Business Services
The five B's of shopping's five B's for organizing this holiday season:

1. Budget
2. Brainstorm
3. Bullet point
4. Beat the crowds
5. Buy!

(CNN) -- Many holiday shoppers view their task as a dreaded chore, not as the enjoyable part of the season that it could be with some good planning and the help of's holiday shopping guide.

"It's like doing your taxes, everyone waits until the last minute," said Gigi Guerra, executive editor of Lucky Magazine, a publication devoted to the art of shopping. "And you know how stressful that is."

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Saturday before December 25 is the busiest day of the holiday season. But that won't be you. Not this year.

The key to successful holiday shopping is planning, Guerra said.

Ideally, people can avoid late holiday shopper syndrome and start before Thanksgiving, Guerra said. Whenever they buy, she adds, the budget should come first.

"Pick an amount you can afford and then divvy it up," she said. "It's really hard to stick to exact sums, so allow for a little bit of leeway."

In 2004, the average American plans to spend a little more than $700 total, up about $30 from last year, according to NRF.

Outside Bloomingdale's in Century City Center mall in Los Angeles, California, shoppers bustle around during lunch hour as early birds try to squeeze in pre-Thanksgiving shopping.

Jamie St. Anthony, 48, of Hollywood is one of them. He expects to spend a little less than $1,000 on holiday shopping this year and sticks to one hard and fast rule, "If it's not on sale, I won't buy it."

Ideas and inspiration

Price is critical, Guerra said. So after you nail down the numbers, make a list of gift recipients, divide up how much you want to spend on each person and then start brainstorming ideas.

Those who can afford the luxury of hiring a personal shopper can have the brainstorming done for them. Jaye Hersh, owner of Intuition boutique in Los Angeles, provides such a service.

"We don't take no for an answer," Hersh said of requests for types of gifts. Her customers, who request gifts mostly for women ages 16 to 60, typically come in with a budget and number of gifts needed and leave the rest up to her staff.

To stay current on all the latest trends, Hersh, whose customers include celebrities Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jessica Simpson and Lucy Liu, scours the streets to find the newest styles. This year, she says, Ugg handbags, pashmina wraparound shawls and T-shirts donned with hip catchphrases lead the pack in Hollywood must-haves.

If you don't have a personal shopper, you can still find personalized gifts the old-fashioned way, said Guerra, by doing your homework.

"Ask a friend of that person what they like. Take mental notes when you get together. And there's nothing wrong with being direct. Just ask them what they want," she said.

For office gifts and items that might require a less personal approach, she suggests a flowers-of-the-month club, gourmet chocolates, housewarming items, wines and gift baskets.

The NRF surveyed consumers on what they wanted to receive this year. Among the items, clothing, books, CDs, DVDs and gift cards topped the list.

St. Anthony, who prides himself on coming up with creative ideas, packages several items together to create themed gifts. Entertainment is a big focus this year, he said. He plans on buying movie theater vouchers, gift certificates to local events and CDs for friends and family. And when asked what he does for someone who has everything, he says he forgoes the material for the edible.

"I take them out for food, because everyone has to eat."

Shopping's legwork

Whether your shopping destination includes restaurants or malls, most shoppers will brave the wintry weather to get the job done.

To break up the mall monotony, Guerra suggests finding smaller boutiques or antique shops to find out-of-the-ordinary gifts. "Get a list of three or four different stores that you haven't been to," Guerra said.

Personal shopper Jaye Hersh says T-shirts with clever sayings are all the rage in 2004.

If you'd rather save neighborhood exploring for spring, Ellen Tolley of NRF suggests using the Internet and weekly newspaper ads to choose items before you get into your car and head out to buy them. "Do some of the legwork at home before you head to the mall."

Guerra agrees. "Do not go into a store blind. You don't have to write down things on a list, but if you don't know who you're buying for, you'll get distracted by the decorations."

As store windows begin to display red and green signs synonymous with the holiday season, shoppers zip by with armfuls of bags and a frenzied look in their eyes. Outside Victoria Secret in Century City Center mall, one passerby, when asked to comment on holiday shopping said emphatically, "It drives me crazy."

St. Anthony had his share of complaints as well. "A lot of women love it as a sport, but I can't stand it," he said.

Guerra is one of those women. She makes her living from perfecting the sport of shopping for her magazine. So, when asked, she shared a few insider's tips on how to make the experience fun.

Ask a friend who's opinion you trust to come with you, don't hesitate to buy something for yourself if you stumble across a must-have deal and save the toy shopping for last, as it can be the most fun, and you'll have something to look forward to, she said.

Choosing the right times can also help. "Shopping off hours is good. Take a personal day from work or shop on a Thursday night," she said. If you go when the crowds aren't there, you're less likely to be frustrated. And then maybe, it won't feel so much like you're doing your taxes.

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