Keeping ho-ho-ho in the holidays This year, more elves can write on the gift tag: 'I made it myself'

November 29, 1991|By Jean Marbella Sun reporter Randi Henderson contributed to this article.

Silk pajamas and boxer shorts and elegant potpourri sachets in fine fabrics may sound like wonderfully luxurious Christmas presents, but for Leslie Harris, they're gifts she can make -- and save money as well.

Ms. Harris, a professional dressmaker, estimates she'll save $1,000 this year by making nearly all of her gifts. "You can really give someone a much larger gift if you put some of your own labor into it," she said.

While few are outright canceling the holidays, some of the usual excesses that characterize this season -- the extravagant presents, the bountiful parties, the whole, buy-now-worry-later insouciance of it all -- may be tempered by uncertainty over who or where the recession will strike next, observers say.

"The holidays are the holidays," said Annette Caruso, a sales clerk at a Towson Town Center store. "There are ways, though, of doing things less expensively . . ."

Indeed many are turning to innovation and nip-and-tuck efforts to stay within budgets -- but still celebrate the season. For example, at the Ben Franklin craft store in Cockeysville, anything do-it-yourself seems the rage, said Arline Langer, who has been manager for "20 or so years."

Craft classes have been packed, she said and "we're selling a lot of things to make sweat shirts, ornaments, and jewelry -- like crazy! Sales are up for us because I think that a lot are doing homemade things this year."

The cheer-on-a-budget refrain echoes throughout offices as well, as employers plan parties while making sure employees feel appreciated.

At the University of Maryland at Baltimore, for example, the annual Christmas evening celebration will be turned into a daytime event this year.

"To save funds, we're changing it from a night-time event with a stand-up buffet to an open house on a Sunday afternoon with light hors d'oeuvres," said Nancy Tabor, UMAB director of special events. "And this year we're using donated talent from within the [University of Maryland] system for the musical accompaniment."

The annual, invitations-only party at Hidden Waters, the university-owned president's estate in Pikesville, is expected to cost about a fifth of last year's party. With state institutions such as the University of Maryland suffering severe budget cutbacks and staff layoffs, UMAB officials believed that this year, "it was very important to watch the dollars," Ms. Tabor said.

"It still will have a nice holiday feel," she promised.

Other holiday parties, too, will make more of an effort to shut out the bad times, at least for a few hours. "No, we're not scaling

down," said Jamie McDonald, vice president for marketing for Alex. Brown & Sons, which throws a corporate-sponsored Christmas party every year. "In good years and in bad years we look at what we're spending, but we think it's important for employee morale for everyone to get together and have fun."

"Parties absolutely do a lot for employee morale," agreed Kerrie Burch-DeLuca, assistant vice president for corporate communications for USF&G. Parties at USF&G are done on a departmental basis with employees pitching in for refreshments.

And although at malls and shopping centers such as the newly renovated Towson Town Center, holiday decorating and products are out in full force, continuing economic worries are expected to slow the Christmas shopping rush. "If a consumer picks up a newspaper and sees the city ordering furloughs, sees his neighbors being laid off, sees the problems with the school system -- why, even if he has a job, would he feel life will continue as it is in the future," said Richard Durand, a professor and chairman at the marketing department at the University of Maryland business school.

"You think, 'if it happened to them, it could happen to me,' " said Toni Atkins, a Baltimore County social services employee who, even as she shopped at Towson Town one recent night, could not help but think of other public workers who have been laid off in recent months. "These people come in for food stamps, you hear their stories, it's really sad."

But conspicuous consumption was on its way out even before HTC the recession, advertising and marketing analyzers say, and the ads designed to separate you from your money reflect that, especially this year. The emphasis on status labels and designer names during the 1980s -- the "you are what you buy" attitude -- has given way to a greater focus on value and quality, they said.

"There's lots of advertising now that focuses on non-advertising -- you're buying the product because of the quality not because of the celebrity endorsing it," said Susan Small-Weil, executive vice president and chief planning officer of Warwick, Baker & Fiore advertising agency in New York. "The buzzword is value today. You see this most recently in the new American Express ad campaign. It really has moved from the self-indulgent icon of the '80s to a more value, quality card."

The average consumer may not notice it, but even holiday decorations in some cases have shifted away from the glitz of a few years ago, said Joe Babinski, vice president and chief operating officer of the Becker Group, a Baltimore company that does seasonal decorations for about 120 shopping centers across the country.

"We've found that more people lately have gone for the more traditional look . . . the green-and-gold-and-red look. It was just a few years ago that the upscale, Fifth Avenue look was more popular," Mr. Babinski said.

Not that the upscale look has gone away totally, he adds. It was, for example, the pick of one of the Becker Group's local customers, Towson Town Center.

"I think during these times," said Towson Town shopper Stacey O'Neal, "people need some place nice to go to."

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