With 25 people to buy gifts for, 60 cards to address, 12 batches of cookies to make, a house to decorate, and assorted parties, church services and school functions to attend, Theresa Fries has discovered one way to make it through the season with her sanity intact.
Begin shopping in July.
And finish by November.
So today, while others start battling it out in malls, losing their patience in lines and narrowly averting disaster in packed parking lots, the 37-year-old mother will calmly visit with relatives and treat her three daughters to ice cream.
That's because nearly all of her presents are resting on her dining room table, wrapped and ready to be handed out.
"I hate to shop after Thanksgiving," explains Ms. Fries, who lives in Linthicum. "If I wasn't almost done with my shopping, I'd be a basket case. My Christmas spirit would go out the window."
While many people don't start thinking about Christmas until the Thanksgiving turkey's digested, others like Ms. Fries are taking the early bird approach. Spurred by an aversion to crowds, a brimming December calendar or a desire to save money, these people often begin their Christmas gift-buying while others are still planning for the Fourth of July.
The advantages, they say, are many: Stores have good selections, crowds are nil and sales plentiful. The drawbacks are few: a shortage of boxes in stores, an occasional problem with returns and a need to buy gifts for people who don't know what they want.
Retailers are quick to point out, however, that early shoppers are the exception. "It's the unusual shopper who really begins shopping in August," says Joseph B. Siegel, vice president of merchandising for the National Retail Federation in New York. "The more typical one does their shopping starting around this time."
That's not to say, of course, that store owners don't appreciate what they learn from these folks. "They're wonderful customers," Mr. Siegel says. "They give us a clue as retailers about items we ought to be stocking up on."
But Debbie Demchuk wasn't trying to tip off retailers when she finished buying gifts last week. She was just trying to savor the holidays.
She learned her lesson seven years ago when she --ed through a department store on Christmas Eve. "All I remember was I couldn't get a parking space," says Ms. Demchuk, 34, a sales account manager for Tessco, a communications equipment company in Hunt Valley. "And I remember standing in line, saying, 'I'll never do this again.' "
This year, she decided to get an early start on her shopping.
She started in 1989.
On December 26, to be exact.
"I just wanted to get it finished so I could really enjoy the holiday," explains Ms. Demchuk, who is married and lives in Parkton.
People who shop early often value their time and money more than other people, says Lewis Harrison, a time-management consultant in New York.
"Most people are committed to struggle in their lives. They'll do anything to struggle, like wait in lines and develop ulcers," he says. Early Christmas shoppers, on the other hand, put a premium on spending time productively. In extreme cases, they can become compulsive, but more often they're labeled neurotic or even anal retentive by those who don't understand their methods.
"They may be anal retentive, but they get to spend their anal retentiveness on the beach in the Bahamas with a pina colada while everyone else runs around the malls like chickens with their heads cut off," he says.
Many pre-Thanksgiving shoppers agree that finishing early allows them to reach December 25 in better spirits.
"I still go to the malls to have lunch and see the decorations and hear the music," says Peg Snellinger, 65, of Catonsville, who has finished her shopping. When she does visit though, she's able to breathe easy knowing she doesn't have to panic if the last pair of Isotoner gloves is gone.
And if she finds another gift she adores, she often buys it, saving it for a birthday or another holiday.
Which brings up the question: Do early shoppers spend more?
Ms. Fries says the opposite is true. By starting months ahead, she's able to take advantage of sales, clip coupons and use rebates. It's a benefit that comes in handy during these near-recession days, she says.
But what happens if, say, Uncle Morris can't squeeze into the medium-sized sweater the way he could in August? Or how about Aunt Edna's getting two chartreuse scarves and the one she wants to return was purchased in September?
Retailers have grown more accommodating about returns and exchanges in the past few years, particularly when the customer has a receipt, Mr. Siegel says. So far, in the seven years since Ms. Fries has been shopping early, she's only had a few returns.
"I've been lucky," she says. "People like what I buy. Or if they don't, they don't tell me."