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Frantic rush for last-minute holiday shoppers

As of Sunday, with six days to go, 12 million people still hadn't started their holiday shopping, according to the National Retail Federation. And 75 million more still had a quarter of it to go.
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Scratching her sister off her list while striding out of Ann Taylor Loft, Shannon Manning clutches three large shopping bags filled with gifts. Since arriving at Tysons Corner Center at 8 a.m., she has steamrolled through Lord & Taylor, Hecht's and Nordstrom — pumped on caffeine and urgency.

But she's not close to done.

Less than a week before Christmas, Manning has that deer-in-the-holiday-lights look not uncommon to eleventh-hour shoppers. Oh, sure, she took care of the kids' gifts weeks ago and bought a lot of the big presents online. But being a busy Fairfax lawyer with three young children, she just hasn't made it out to shop — until now.

Her mission is to find ideal gifts for eight adults. Only problem is, she promised her husband, who is home with the kids, that she'd be back by 1.

"That sounds like a lot of time, but I don't have a real game plan on what I'm getting people," says Manning, who says she lost sleep the night before worrying about getting her Christmas buying done. "I'm kind of wandering around hoping something's going to jump out and say, 'Buy me!' "

Unless you're a hermit — maybe even if you are a hermit — you know she's not alone. But did you know last-minute shopping is this bad: As of Sunday, with six days to go, 12 million people still hadn't started their holiday shopping, according to the National Retail Federation. And 75 million more still had a quarter of it to go.

Holy Prancer! What have these people been doing? It's beginning to look a lot like ... they're running out of time.

The reality aisle
For procrastinators, this is the week when shopping denial finds the reality aisle.

"It's a funny irony that merchants are starting the Christmas music and decorations earlier and earlier, but consumers are waiting later and later to buy," says Barbara Kahn, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, noting that the day before Christmas now rivals the day after Thanksgiving in retail sales. "What that means is that consumers are inundated with holiday messages and marketing ploys for a long time before they are actually buying."

And that has a psychological impact. A wallet impact, too.

Basically, a sense of urgency is established long before late shoppers hit the malls. By the time they get there, they're in a frenzy.

"Continual reminders that the holiday season is around us create a general state of tension and a sense of time scarcity," says Mark Arnold, associate professor of marketing at the John Cook School of Business at St. Louis University.

And, says Kahn: "The longer people delay and the closer to the deadline they come, the more desperate they may be to get presents. It's obviously hard to make the careful trade-offs necessary in smart shopping when a deadline is fast approaching. As it gets closer and closer to the moment, the idea of picking up a wrapped box from an in-store display becomes more enticing."

When else can tube socks, clown art or cleaning supplies look like perfect gifts? And, hey, the three wise men, they came bearing frankincense and myrrh for an infant in swaddling clothes? You think that wasn't last-minute?

But then it's the thought that counts.

Scott Goehrung is pushing a baby stroller out of Brookstone at Tysons Corner. There's no baby in it. The stroller is overflowing with bags of gifts.

Embracing the insanity
Yes, yes, he admits, he's a procrastinator and last-minute shopper. "Just like in school when you do the paper the night before."

But Goehrung and his family have embraced the insanity, making last-minute shopping a ritual of their holiday season the past five years. "We get up early, go to breakfast, and then we all come out here," says the Rockville resident.

It's tricky because everybody he needs to buy gifts for — wife, kids, sister, in-laws — is also there at the mall. So they all split up and meet again when they're done.

"We focus it all on one day of shopping," he says. "It might be a little tormenting, but the best time is to do it the last minute because I'm not a big shopper. I like to go and get it over with."

Pam Danziger, president of the research firm Unity Marketing and author of the 2002 book "Why People Buy Things They Don't Need," says shoppers like Goehrung who wait until the last minute aren't necessarily the pure procrastinators we generally think they are. The crowds filling stores now include several types.

"There's 'Practical Patty,' who plans all her time. She's about 35 percent of the market — and she's done shopping now," says Danziger. "But there's also 'Emotional Ethel,' who does all her shopping at the last minute because she likes the thrill of the hunt. She represents 20 percent. And 'Gift-Challenged Charlie,' 38 percent, feels a strong sense of responsibility about giving the right gift but he doesn't know what to give — so he's likely to shop at the last minute."

Then there's "Puts-Off Pam." Never mind that she's a shopping expert — she waits to shop until there's no time left and she feels desperate.

Retailers 'add fuel to the shopping fire'
Of course, the last-minute frenzy makes retailers holly jolly. They use it to "add fuel to the shopping fire," says St. Louis's Arnold.

The week before Christmas, shoppers find deep discounts, easy credit, a scarcity of "must-have" products, extended hours, gift-type products moved to the front of the stores — all lending to that buy-buy mentality.

But the urgency too often drives shoppers to lowering standards, paying more than planned.

"There is no concept of budget at this point," says shopper Manning. "You're at the point where if you can get it on sale, great! Or if you can use a coupon and such. But if you actually found a gift for the person, you just buy it, because you just have to get it done."

It also lends to "irrational shopping behavior that can result in purchases which wind up being horrible gifts, impulse purchases, spending more than one plans," says Arnold.

Stores will often focus on promotions that tap into people who wait for last-minute sales. "Retailers create artificial deadlines, knowing that consumers are paying attention to the marketplace" — such as early-bird sales or "while supplies last" advertising, Arnold says.

"I got ponchos from $68 to $18! I think that's a good deal," says Terri LaVoie of Olney, who took Monday off to get her shopping done at Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery.

Although she finished most of her shopping much earlier, she says she always likes to leave one day for shopping in the week before Christmas. "The sales!" she says.

Some sales are loss leaders — deep discounts that draw shoppers into stores where, retailers hope, they will also buy gifts not on sale. Like when you go into L.L. Bean for those furry fleece-lined slippers and come out with the slippers plus a Grundig AM/FM/shortwave radio, a fluorescent Itty Bitty Book Light and a half-gallon jug of L.L. Bean Maple Syrup.

"You see it person after person," says Joel Huber, professor of marketing at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

Huber recently conducted a study with colleagues at Yale University on why some shoppers end up buying more than they intended. They came up with the term "the shopping momentum effect."

"Your list is long, your time is short, and your temper's flaring," he says. "Consumers who purchase one item at a store are more likely to continue shopping and buy more."

It defies the strictly rational view of consumer behavior in which the decision to buy a product is based on its cost and benefits, says Huber, but "once you have started the process of saying, 'I'll pick this up,' you start picking up a lot of other related things — and you are now accumulating. You just bought this perfect pillow for Aunt Polly, and you are more likely to buy a pillow for someone else."

Then on Christmas day, he says, "you ask yourself, 'What was I thinking?' "

Elizabeth Weber and Mayra Torres drove from Southern Maryland on Sunday morning and waited for the doors to open at Bloomingdale's at Tysons Corner. They deny they're really last-minute shoppers — yet here they are. Shopping. At the last minute.

"For me, it's catch-up," says Weber.

"Yeah, last-minute things we forgot," says Torres.

Well, plus a gift for her husband. She always leaves him for last, she confesses.

"I don't have a list," says Weber. "When I see it, I know that's it."

Weber's advice to other, er, actual last-minute shoppers? "Have a list," she says. "Really."