smart spending

Stress-free holiday shopping

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, Black Friday isn't the busiest shopping day of the year. That famous day-after-Thanksgiving hassle is giving way to a new king: the Saturday before Dec. 25. Stores raked in $9.4 billion during opening hours that day in 2007, says the Chicago-based research firm ShopperTrak.

In other words, it's a jungle out there.

But there are alternatives to mall parking lots and an endless sea of people. Stressed-out shoppers are beginning to embrace these trends:

Holiday marts

The Junior League's holiday bazaars sprang up in local units across the country more than a quarter of a century ago as a fundraiser for the organization. In 2006, the Junior League of Jackson, Miss., pulled in around $980,251, making this shopping option a profitable path, according to the league's 2007-08 annual report.

This three-day holiday mart, called Mistletoe Marketplace, drew 35,000 shoppers and 165 merchants from around the Southeast. "It blends holiday shopping with merchants from around the country, so guests find more unique items," says Cindy Dunbar, president and adviser of Jackson's Junior League.

But that's only a part of it. These organizers pride themselves on changing the decorations annually to reflect the hot interior fashion trends of the season. Forget the tired old garland pulled out of a box in storage. These volunteers research fashion design markets as far out as 18 months to determine exciting, eye-catching themes.

Junior League also offers organized events for children (glorified baby-sitting services) to give moms a break. A preview evening gala features dancing and live auctions, while the public hours are filled with the sounds of children's choirs from across the region.

"We want to make it entertaining as well as a shopping experience," says Dunbar.

Amusement parks

Who knows entertainment better than America's amusement parks? The privately held enterprises in particular offer festive activities and tasty treats to accompany you along your journey of their gift shops. Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, Pa., transforms its streets into a cornucopia of rides, cookie decorating, storytelling and visits with Santa.

Places like North Pole, Santa's workshop at the foot of Pike's Peak in Colorado, break out the llamas, magic shows and revamp their rides with Christmas twists to keep the family happy while adults load up their sleighs with gift-shop goodies.

Crave parties

Melody Biringer created crave parties from her Seattle base several years ago as a way to give girlfriends an excuse to spend time with each other doing what girls love to do: get facials, massages, manicures and shop themselves silly.

In 2005 she expanded this idea to cover holiday shopping in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, Wash.; and Washington, D.C. Since then she has licensed Crave parties in Denver, Toronto, Montreal and Rotterdam.

While you don't shop in your slippers, the sentiment remains. The four-hour evening is all about fashion shows, deejays, give-away drawings every 20 minutes, hairstyling tips, makeup, fashion and pink drinks. Oh yes, and there's the added bonus of crossing a few gifts off your holiday list.

"The atmosphere is opposite from mall shopping," Biringer says. "I only invite boutiques and women-owned businesses so this isn't the same old stuff on display."

It's also not a holiday bazaar's emphasis on merchandise, she adds. "It's a party, and people love it because shopping is only a portion of what you go to do. You sip a martini, socialize and stay the entire time."

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