smart spending

6 places to shop for last-minute gifts

6 places to buy quick gifts
6 places to buy quick gifts

Yes, Virginia, good last-minute gifts do exist.

Believe it or not, with a little creativity, you can find nice presents in a host of "open late" and "24/7" venues -- from convenience stores to airports to coffeehouses.

"The point of the last-minute gift is that it's not expensive, but it's really thoughtful," says Hillary Mendelsohn, author of "thepurplebook" online shopping books and founder of ThePurpleBook.com. "And you don't have to go to the mall or online to get creative with gifting."

One strategy that can help with last-minute gifts: A theme, says Michelle Madhok, founder of SheFinds.com. "A lot of times, you can create a gift if you pick a theme," she says.

And if you're shopping at the eleventh hour, you're in good company.

"I sometimes do the same thing, and I love the 24-hour places," says Peter Callahan, owner of New York-based Peter Callahan Catering and co-author of "Bite by Bite: 100 Stylish Little Plates You Can Make for Any Party."

"And there are some little luxuries you can get there," he says.

Suddenly realizing that you need a few presents pronto? Here are six truly last-minute venues that can present some cool options for gifts.

The grocery store
The grocery stor

Grocery stores are open late, and some are even open 24/7, which means they can be a boon to eleventh-hour gift-givers.

"A supermarket is a great place for creative gifts," says Mendelsohn.

One option: Give a favorite recipe.

"I'll write out the recipe card, buy all the ingredients and wrap it up in a (new) reusable shopping bag," Mendelsohn says. "That's always a big winner."

For children, "I put together a baking kit," Mendelsohn says. You can go for cookies -- with everything including the cookie cutters, she says. Or a one-pan special such as brownies, complete with the foil pan. "It's really fun, and if you're going over to someone's house for the holidays, you get to have an activity."

Another one for aspiring cooks: kitchen tools. For instance, a vegetable peeler is ideal for shaving Parmigiano cheese, Mendelsohn says. "I'll give that together with a great wedge of Parmigiano," Mendelsohn says. "It's a fun way to teach someone a new way of doing something -- and a gift all at the same time."

Class it up: Give a bottle of wine -- with an opener and some stoppers. "It's so handy," she says.

The grocery store, part 2: Theme gifts
The grocery store, part 2: Theme gifts

While grocery stores are good places for creative gifts, stay away from those prepackaged gift baskets, Mendelsohn says. Instead, come up with a theme and create your own.

For a group, consider a DVD with a bag of caramel corn, a selection of movie candy and some gourmet sodas, Mendelsohn suggests. Package it in a popcorn bowl or reusable grocery bag with a bow.

Or use a favorite treat for your theme such as tea, chocolate or coffee, Madhok says. These days, almost every supermarket stocks exotic teas, gourmet coffees and high-end chocolate.

The office supply store
The office supply store

There are some fun presents hidden among the paper clips at the office supply store, which is a great place to buy scrapbooking supplies, Mendelsohn says. For a scrapbooker, you can get everything from special papers to scissors that create decorative edges. Pick up a few choice things and wrap them together.

Or pick up a cute pencil cup and fill it with a rainbow selection of colored pens, then put a bow around it. Not only is it useful, but it adds a little color to the office, she says.

You can also fill that same pencil cup with chocolates, gumballs or any other candy favorite and wrap it in cellophane. "Everybody loves a little nosh on their desk," Mendelsohn says. "And it's a really cute hostess gift."

The coffeehouse
The coffeehouse

Believe or not, many coffeehouses are open on Christmas. (So don't forget those tips, people.)

But the potential for presents is a real no-brainer: the gift of coffee or tea.

One way to present it: Buy a travel mug and stick a gift card in it, Mendelsohn says: "That's something everyone can use. I do this for teacher gifts. And it's a great last-minute gift."

Or, as a variation, you can get a mug with a selection of coffees or teas, she says. You can even throw in some chocolates, or gourmet cookies or biscotti.

And "you can scale it to what you want to spend," Mendelsohn says.

The drugstore
The drugstore

Forget the ghosts of vapor rub, toothbrushes and cough drops past. Drugstores these days are diverse. You really can find something for almost anyone. Some choices include the following.

  • High-end chocolates are always a favorite, Callahan says. At the holidays, you can find beautifully packaged selections, he says.
  • Craving a little nostalgia? Try colorful wooden nutcrackers or snow globes, Callahan says. "I love old-fashioned things like that," he says.
  • Another fun drugstore find for kids or adults: A DVD of a favorite (or soon-to-be favorite) movie, says Mary Hunt, founder of DebtProofLiving.com and author of "7 Money Rules for Life."
  • You can give a little pampering with a nice assortment of bath or beauty products, says Hunt. (Package them in a festive gift bag or Christmas stocking.)

If the store has a photo kiosk, you can enlarge a favorite photo or selection of photos, and put them in drugstore frames, Madhok says. Or, if you have enough time, some photo kiosks produce pages that can be bound (in store) into a book that's ready the same day, she says.

Or go for a more exotic option such as a live baby bamboo plant, says Callahan. Not only are they considered lucky, but they can also make a nice New Year's gift, he says.

The gas-station convenience store
The gas-station convenience store

Depending on the place, you can actually find some pretty cool gifts at gas-station convenience stores.

Need a last-minute hostess gift? Many convenience stores stock wine, including sparkling wine, says Hunt. (You can even pair it with some high-end chocolates, if the store carries them.)

Does your gift recipient have a favorite cause? Some convenience stores sell products (such as accessories or stuffed toys) that benefit causes such as children's hospitals, cancer research and disaster relief, Hunt says.

You can turn the magazine rack into a de facto gift shop. The real present: subscriptions. Whether you pick one magazine or an armful, wrap it as a present -- and let the recipient know that the real present is a year's subscription. Whether your recipient likes travel, cooking, gossip or news, there's sure to be something he or she will enjoy.

Or give gift cards a personal touch. Before picking up Amazon or iTunes gift cards, "I will handwrite a playlist of music I think they should try," Mendelsohn says. While they don't have to buy those songs, "they know that I thought about them," plus they may buy one or two songs that they wouldn't have ordinarily tried, she says.

And with bookstore gift cards, Mendelsohn will include "my favorite books from the year," she says.

The airport
The airport

"Airports are probably one of the easiest" places to get gifts because many have a selection of stores and boutiques, says Madhok. "So you can find all kinds of gifts there."

Another plus for airports: "You have to be there anyway" if you're flying, and you usually don't find as much last-minute traffic as you do in traditional malls and shops, says Hunt.

And, especially if you want high-end gifts, it's a great place to shop, she says.

Some of the highlights: handbags, scarves, silver jewelry, watches, designer sunglasses and even children's toys, says Hunt. And while many airports have a toy store, even some of the general merchandise stores will also carry toys, she says.

Have someone in your life who travels a lot? Pick up some travel sizes of their favorite items and pack them in a travel kit, Madhok says.

Another nice gift that's available at almost any airport (and will fit just about anyone) is hardback books. "Even a minor airport will have the best-selling books," Madhok says. "So you can buy a few of those and tie them up."

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