Minute Shoppers, Men Lead the Pack
David Merlin-Jones stood in front of the gift card rack at a Safeway in Silver Spring yesterday and stared.
His wife had sent him for groceries, but he soon realized he could finish his Christmas shopping as well. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a wad of expired coupons and scraps of paper. Somewhere in there was his 10-year-old daughter's wish list.
"This is, like, stocking stuffers," said Merlin-Jones, who lives in Adelphi. "I'm looking to see if there's any last-minute guilt gifts."
It's a stereotype with at least a grain of truth: Men procrastinate on their holiday shopping. According to a survey conducted by BigResearch and released last week by the National Retail Federation, a retail trade group, about 19 percent of men had not begun their holiday shopping, compared with 14 percent of women. Only about 11 percent of men claimed to be finished.
"It's a fine art form we've perfected over the years," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation. "It's never been easier to be a procrastinator."
The popularity of gift cards and a full weekend before Christmas to find the perfect present provided even more excuses for holiday laggards this year.
Henry Wilson of Rockville perused Christmas cards at a CVS in the District yesterday. He had visited a farmers' market in Northeast D.C. in the morning and planned to stop at White Flint Mall in Rockville for a digital camera for his daughter and black tennis shoes for his mother. If all went smoothly, he would find presents for the seven people on his list before his shift as a limo driver began at 2 p.m.
It's not that he hadn't thought about what to get everyone for Christmas, Wilson said. But the execution can be tricky.
"It just kind of caught me quick this time," he said.
Although males lead the last-minute charge, they are not alone in putting off purchases. Overall, consumers have delayed their shopping trips this holiday, causing retailers anxiety over how the season will fare. The International Council of Shopping Centers reported that consumers had completed just 18 percent of their shopping as of early last week, down from 31 percent in 2004.
The group cited calendar quirks as the main reason for the tardiness. About 67 percent of those surveyed said they planned to take advantage of the weekend before Christmas. Sixty percent said this year's early Thanksgiving made them feel they had more time to shop, even as time slowly ran out.
And about 52 percent of consumers in the ICSC survey said they felt comfortable waiting until the last minute because they can turn to gift cards. The NRF estimates sales of gift cards will grow 6 percent, to $26.3 billion, this holiday season. They are easily available, quick to pick up and no longer signal thoughtlessness.
In other words, gift cards are the salvation of desperate male shoppers.
"Most people are not panicked about it because, frankly, they know they've got the gift card in the back pocket -- which really is a sentiment of a lot of guys," said Marshal Cohen, an analyst with consumer research firm NPD Group, who estimated that about 65 percent of gift card purchasers are men.
Eliseo Aguilar of Silver Spring headed straight to the rack of gift cards in Safeway as soon as he entered the store. Aguilar had almost knocked out his entire Christmas list of more than 20 people the day before in an hour and a half at Target. At Safeway, he picked up a $100 Visa prepaid debit card for his 6-year-old daughter and another $100 card for his brother. Then he was done.
"I know my people, what they like," he said.
Sometimes, finding the perfect gift requires an act of courage. Particularly when the gift involves fruity smells, spritzing and anything pink.
Jim Baker of Silver Spring walked into the Body Shop at Montgomery Mall yesterday proudly wearing a Redskins jacket, the only man in the store. The Body Shop is a woman's turf -- fragrance supplies, makeup, bath gels. Baker appears to take care of his skin, but not like that.
He smiled and said, "I'm shopping for my wife."
Baker had bought her slippers and socks on Saturday, but yesterday he feared that the creams he got her were not correct and bath gels were what she really wanted. He did not mind the rush.
"I just want to please my wife," he said.
Parked in the mall's gift-wrapping line was Dave Naulty, clutching shopping bags from Nordstrom and Bailey Banks & Biddle. He was about to wrap up a Christmas tradition: Shopping at the last minute for his wife.
There were about seven people -- mostly men -- in line ahead of him. Naulty, an investment banker from New Jersey who was in town visiting his family in Potomac, said his relatives delight in giving him a hard time for his procrastinating ways. But he didn't mind. After all, a last-minute gift is still a gift.
"It's a tradition," he said. "I'm used to it."
His wife took him shopping a few weeks ago to point out things she liked, thereby, it should be noted, enabling his Christmas Eve shopping adventures. As for what he bought, we don't want to ruin whatever big surprises remain, so let's just say the gift is round and shiny.
And despite all the ribbing Naulty gets for his last-minute shopping, his father called while he stood in line and asked him to pick up one more present.
"Like father, like son," Naulty said.
By Ylan Q. Mui and Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writers
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