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Holiday Shopping Trends

Byline: Ylan Q. Mui and Margaret Webb Pressler

Washington Post staff writers Ylan Q. Mui and Margaret Webb Pressler were online to discuss holiday shopping trends, both online and at traditional retailers.

A transcript follows .


Olney, Md.: Hi. I'm posting early as I'm heading out to the malls early to get some shopping done.

What do you think about gift cards? I think they are a gift that is given with little thought, but more of my friends are asking for them. The dilemma is that they are practically worthless unless you're willing to pony up more than $50 a person. If you have five or six people on your list, that's a lot of money - much less than just getting a gift.

What is the proper amount? And are gift cards really the gift-without-a-thought I perceive them to be?

Ylan Q. Mui: Gift cards were huge last year and getting even bigger this year. A retail trade group even puts gift cards as third on consumers' wish lists. That means that even even if you might feel a little chintzy giving it, it's clearly what people are asking for!

Lots of retailers are also finding ways to make gift cards seem more personal, so that they don't feel like a last-minute gift. Wal-Mart, for example, is letting you put your own photos on the gift card. Gucci offers a gift card that is packaged so that it looks like a box of chocolates!

But the proper amount to put on the card is really up to you and what you can afford. Just be aware that some cards have expiration dates or even "dormancy fees" that add up if you don't use them.


Washington, D.C.: Was Cyber Monday all hype or did it pan out? Did not see you guys closing the loop on that.

Margaret Webb Pressler: Hi everyone! HOpe the shopping is going well. As to Cyber Monday, it does appear that it was a VERY big day. Visa reports a record day of $505 million in charges that day--and that's about half of everything charged online. That's a 26 percent jump over Cyber Monday last year, and a 10 percent jump over the previous biggest day of this year. CardStore.com reports that sales on Monday doubled and set a one-day record. BabyUniverse.com reports that sales were up 40 percent on Cyber Monday over last year, but interestingly, people were spending 10 percent less time on the site, on average. So it seems online shoppers are getting more efficient! Good news to employers everywhere...

Ylan Q. Mui: I'm working on a story today that will run tomorrow about November sales results that will wrap in some of that Cyber Monday information. Really, the Internet is becoming an increasingly big player in holiday shopping.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Help. My 6 year old definitely wants high-tech toys for Christmas. How can I make him happy without breaking the bank or making him a Gameboy addict?

washingtonpost.com: Tech Gift Guide

Margaret Webb Pressler: I certainly don't want to be responsible for your 6 year old's christmas, and I'm not sure what break the bank means to you, but...There are a few less expensive high tech toys out there that might be worth considering. One is a little i-pod like mp3 player from disney that you can find at Target if you hurry. It's called the Mix stick. It's only $49.99--which is a lot for a kid, but not a lot for an mp3 player. That could go a long way to satisfying the little tyke if he likes listening to music. There are a few relatively inexpensive digital cameras, too, though I don't think they've yet conquered that technology on the cheap. Good luck.


Bethesda, Md.: Please tell me Ugg boots are finally on their way out?! Are there any similar "must-haves" for this year???

Margaret Webb Pressler: Ugg boots are on the way out if you ask the fashionistas--they are all flocking to cowboy boots. It's a look that's great for now, but be prepared to look foolish in them at this time next year! However, I should add that one retailer in connecticut I talked to, who runs three huge shoe stores, said he can't keep Uggs in stock. Ugh.

Ylan Q. Mui: Personal confession: I have put my (admittedly knock-off) Uggs in storage in favor of slouchy shearling boots and a pair of Fryes!!! I love them, though I'll probably put them in storage next year in favor of something else!

This year, furry boots seem to be big. Check out Payless -- some seriously great styles!


Arlington, Va.: I'm confused - do people research purchases online and buy them in brick and mortar stores, or check out items in the mall and buy them online?

Margaret Webb Pressler: People clearly do both. The big push among retailers that have online and traditional store distribution channels is to make them interact more seamlessly so that people will jump from one to the other. I'm a little too impulsive to cross-shop like that. If I see something online that I like, I tend to buy it right then and there. LIkewise in stores. I'm too busy to hunt! What do the chatters out there do?


Columbia, Md.: I heard someone say that the late arrival of Hanukkah this year (it begins after Christmas) was affecting retail sales. Have you seen any evidence of this?

Ylan Q. Mui: Actually, I was just speaking to an analyst this morning who was talking about the sales lull after Thanksgiving. A lot of people are predicting a big last-minute holiday push, with post-Christmas and January becoming increasingly busy. Gift cards and, this year, Hanukkah are both big reasons for that.

Margaret Webb Pressler: You would be amazed how seemingly little things like calendar dates and holiday dates and weather affect retail. No wonder they're a stressed out bunch. Every year retailers also attribute stronger or weaker spring sales to when Easter falls. So, yes, Hanukkah could very well slow things down a bit this year. Its the years with a late Thanksgiving that are really a killer though--that's when retailers start talking about "fewer shopping days" in the holiday season. I've always thought that sounded funny.


Fairfax, Va.: So people really lined up at 5 a.m. to buy four-dollar slow cookers at Wal-Mart? Was that what they had in mind, or were they hoping to get the plasma tv?

Ylan Q. Mui: I think a lot of folks were going for the electronics bargains -- I don't think there is a run on slow cookers!! Actually, there was a fight broke out at the Wal-Mart on Kingstowne, I think, in Alexandria at 5 a.m. Friday morning. A woman was sent to the hospital!

Margaret Webb Pressler: People will buy anything if there's a frenzy mentality. Why do you think the stores keep opening up earlier and earlier? It creates a scene! It creates excitement! It creates lots of unnecessary purchases!


Gucci Gift Cards?!: Really? Can Santa bring me one of those? Seriously though - any word on when Gucci and those other plush stores being built in Chevy Chase will open? Can we start shopping there now or do we have to wait until after the holidays?

Ylan Q. Mui: They've already startd opening! I know that Dior and Ralph Lauren are up and running, and Barney's is scheduled to open this month. Most of the stores should be open by Christmas, and everything will be done in March. The stores are doing "soft openings" for now, and the big grand opening will come in the spring.

But I heard that Ralph Lauren is serving sparkling water to customers and that's it's filled with Purple Label.

Margaret Webb Pressler: See, you can't get that experience with a gift card!


Vienna, Va.: My family has decided that we will "adopt" a family in each of our neighborhoods (or Gulf Coast region) and use the $$ we would have spent on each other to assist that family. Nice idea and prevents our houses with filling up with more stuff.

Is it horrible to donate something in a good friend's name when you usually exchange gifts? I want to make that an option with some close friends but don't want to be rude.

Ylan Q. Mui: I don't think it's horrible, no! (Full disclosure: I'm from New Orleans, so you know I'm biased.) But it all depends on the friend. Maybe ask them first? Something like, "I was hoping to just donate this holiday season and would like to donate to a charity in your honor." And then maybe get all those close friends together for coffee/dinner/whatever to celebrate. Because at the end of the day, the holiday season should really be about spending time with friends and family. It's cliche, but it's true!


Silver Spring, Md.: Will Maryland be doing a no sales tax week soon???

Margaret Webb Pressler: Our crack Maryland editors are tyring to find out for you. They had not heard of one, but that'd doesn't mean there isn't one. I'll post back if I get an answer.

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