You snooze, you lose
While catalog shopping and express mail may be a good way to reach your loved ones on time, you may have to be flexible about what they get.
Just ask Christine Jobs, vice president of member services for the National Retail Federation.
Last time she went catalog shopping, she wanted to buy a 22-inch necklace. But she had to settle for a shorter one - the necklace she wanted was out of stock.
It's a common complaint among catalog shoppers, especially at this time of year.
"The sooner you can get your shopping done, the better the chance of getting what you want," says Ms. Jobs.
Catalogs are printed as much as six months in advance, and obviously they can't be changed as stocks run out, which sometimes happens even before the catalog reaches customers.
Researchers for catalog retailers constantly survey buyers to gauge their interests. But it's still hard to predict what will be popular six months ahead, says Anna Schryver, spokeswoman for Lands' End.
For example, the unusually warm winter this year has left Lands' End scrambling to fill orders for Polartec slippers and women's cotton sweaters.
Unlike clothing, demand for other products, such as home goods, is easier to forecast. Those styles change less often.
Retail stores, like catalogs, have most of the same problems trying to anticipate customer demand, says Ms. Schryver, but they don't disappoint customers the same way.
Catalog customers see the picture and want the product. Store customers don't see the product once it sells out.
That's why catalog telephone reps are trained to direct customers to alternate choices. It's also why most catalogers like the Internet. They can update their Web sites as inventory changes.
To get the catalog goods you want for Christmas, Schryver recommends shopping before Thanksgiving.
"It's a guessing game," says Lands' End forecaster Joe Siriani. "The one thing we do know is that we're going to be wrong."
THE CLOCK IS TICKING
* Nine out of 10 people will shop at the last minute this holiday season.
* Men (1 in 3) are more likely than women (1 in 5) to put off buying a gift for their spouse.
* One-third of last-minute shoppers felt speed was the most important factor in their gift decisions.
* Almost 70 percent of respondents believe that they could have saved money if they hadn't put off their shopping.
* 90 percent don't expect last-minute shopping to be fun.
* Half of holiday shopping procrastinators put the people closet to them (spouses, parents, relatives) at the bottom of their gift lists.
* 20 percent of respondents expect to shop on Christmas Eve.
Source: Lands' End