As the holiday shopping season officially begins, here are tips from mall executives about avoiding that harried, hassled feeling:
* Don't procrastinate. Waiting until the last minute will remove the pleasure and heighten the panic of shopping.
* If you have an aversion to crowds, consider shopping in off-peak hours. At most malls, weekdays before 4 p.m. are less crowded than evenings and weekends.
For shoppers with serious time constraints, Owings Mills Mall is introducing a "Before-Hours Shop By Appointment" service. On Dec. 10 and 17, 41 stores will open early -- from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. -- to allow customers to get help from one-on-one personal shoppers. There will also be complimentary continental breakfast, gift wrap and curbside package delivery. Call Joyce Baker, (410) 363-1234, for more information.
* Make a list. Include several gift ideas and a price range for each person.
* Searching for suggestions? Do a little sleuthing before you head to the store. Consult catalogs, magazines as well as friends and relatives for ideas.
* If someone on your list is requesting a particularly popular item, make that purchase a priority. If you wait, there's a good chance stores will be sold out.
* Some malls such as Owings Mills offer a concierge service with everything from gift wrapping and shipping to coat checks and wheelchair rentals. (Call in advance to ask about wheelchair availability.) The Gallery and Harborplace will offer free gift wrap with any purchase from Dec. 13 to Dec 24.
* Towson Town Center is offering a complimentary delivery service with the purchase of $250 or more. Within two days, packages may be delivered to a home or business in a 20-mile radius of the center. Certain weight and size restrictions apply. The service runs through Dec. 20. Call (410) 494-8800 for more information.
* Take advantage of others' expertise:
* Towson Town Center offers "shopper guides," who will provide directions, carry packages and assist with strollers or wheelchairs. They can be reached through the center's courtesy phones or at the customer service office.
* Owings Mills is introducing "holiday greeters" this year, who will be stationed at several entrances to provide directories and answer questions.
* Wear comfortable shoes and clothes.
* Get boxes and tissue paper when making a purchase. If you wait, you may forget or run out of time. Towson Town Center is offering decorative gift boxes Monday through Friday with each $50 purchase.
* Don't be afraid to take breaks. Use that time to revise your list or brainstorm for other gift ideas.
* When budgeting, don't forget to include how gift wrap, cards and ribbon will add dollars to what you'll spend.
* Check store return policies and remember to keep your receipts.
* Make safety a priority. If you leave bags in your car, lock them in the trunk. If you're shopping at night, park in a well-lit area. And after making purchases, return your change or credit card to your wallet before leaving the register.
* Remember where you park. Many malls have marked lots or levels. If you're truly lost, contact the security department. Guards can often help locate your car.