Christmas is the time of year when gift-choosing skills are put to the test. For weeks before the holiday, stores are crowded with shoppers looking for something special for everyone on their lists.
But on the day after Christmas the stores are crowded once again -- this time with grandmothers anxious to exchange flashy beaded sweaters and petite women wondering why anyone would give them an oversize, bulky cable-knit sweater.
One might be tempted to think that Christmas is not only the season for giving but also the season for returning.
In part, that's because the gifts that are easy to give are not always the most appreciated.
"We think sweaters are the ideal gift," said Beverly Hill, a consultant for the Personal Touch shopping service at Nordstrom in Towson Town Center. "But one of the most returned items is sweaters. Sometimes you can get too many."
The same goes for bathrobes, which are an easy gift for the buyer.
"One Christmas, I myself got five robes," Ms. Hill said.
Better gifts are accessories, which are important to any wardrobe and have a lower return rate, she said.
Ms. Hill is a professional shopper -- paid to shop not for herself but for others. She and other consultants in malls throughout the Baltimore area have made a science out of this business of shopping.
"People tend to buy what they like instead of looking at what the person who is receiving the gift will like," she said.
"Women make the mistake of trying to pinpoint how they think their husband or boyfriend should be. Instead they should be trying to figure out which way he wants to be."
Before shopping for someone, Ms. Hill gathers information about hair and eye color, skin tone, age, height and weight to help her choose the best colors, styles and sizes. Personality is also important.
"Is this a very outgoing person?" she said. "Is she the fun type, the life of the party? If so, I would go with bright colors, something a little fun. One of the key colors this fall is red, so I might choose a red blazer."
For a more "controlled" personality, Ms. Hill would stick to earth tones like camel and chestnut brown. "I would not show her something in an animal print. I would choose something subdued and very fashionable."
Barbara Tucker, director of the Fifth Avenue Club, a shopping service for Saks Fifth Avenue, agreed.
"You certainly wouldn't want to sell a Ralph Lauren customer something too zany," she said.
"You've got to make your selection geared to the person who is going to be receiving the gift," Mrs. Tucker said. "If somebody doesn't go out you wouldn't give her an evening bag. And if a woman has small children, you wouldn't want to give her a suede pair of pants."
Instead, ask friends about vacation plans and dream up an appropriate gift.
"We spend Christmas with a family and one year they were going to be leaving for St. Thomas the next day," she said. "So I made up a basket filled with all kinds of sun products."
Another year she ordered a school sweat shirt, mug and pencil from a college bookstore for a teen who had just received her acceptance letter.
"What you have to do is find out as much as possible about the people you're buying for," she said. "What are their favorite colors and designers? What look would they like to achieve? How do they spend their free time and their work time? What are their interests? Do they like perfume or are they allergic? Do they go out a lot or do they stay home?
"It just means spending a little time thinking about the person," said Mrs. Tucker, who shops for holiday gifts all year-round. "My husband wears suspenders and when I see a great-looking pair I'll always get them. He's an accountant and he has a sense of humor so I bought him suspenders with dollar bills on them."
She also keeps a list of gifts from previous years so that she doesn't repeat herself.
"We tend to buy the same things for the same people," Mrs. Tucker said. "My great-grandmother once asked me why I gave her satin hangers every year. I didn't know that I had. So for the past 10 years I've kept a list and I can tell you everything I've given during that time."
It's also smart to shop at the gift recipient's favorite stores, said Joyce Baker, manager of customer service and the Easier Better Shopping Service for the Owings Mills Mall.
"When I give a gift, I want to know that it's not going to be returned because there was no thought behind it," she said.
Still, after Christmas the stores are filled with "a lot of confused customers saying, 'I didn't think this looked like me,' " said Ana Vargas, director of Macy's By Appointment at White Marsh Mall, a free personal shopping service.