Christmas shopping by mail: it's easy, if . . .

Mail order has never been the Christmas gift solution for last-minute shoppers. But for people looking for more convenience and fewer crowds, ordering gifts by mail is often the best answer.

It can be frustrating, however, if the presents you ordered are damaged or late getting to the people who were supposed to have them by Christmas Day. In recent years, opportunities for delay have grown as department stores have joined the traditional mail-order companies in helping people who do not have the time or temperament to go downtown or to the mall for gift-shopping and elbow-fighting.

By now, says Meredith Fernstrom, senior vice-president at the American Express Company's office of public responsibility, most people who are going to order gifts by mail should have done so already, at least those who sent in their orders by mail. There may still be enough time - depending on the company - to order gifts by telephone. She suggests you ask the company representative who takes the order for some assurance that the gift will arrive on time.

Beyond that, Ms. Fernstrom offers a number of other tips for mail-order shoppers.

Although her first suggestion might be discounted because it comes from a representative of one of the largest purveyors of charge cards, it does have merit. If you have a charge or credit card, this is a good time to use it, even if you are usually opposed to using a credit card when you have the cash to pay for something. The first reason is that it's never a good idea to send cash by mail, and a check often has to be cleared through the banking system before the gift will be sent.

Also, if you use a credit card, your account will not be charged until the next monthly billing period, presumably after the gift has been received.

And if the present is not received, is damaged, or is not what you ordered, Ms. Fernstrom says, American Express - and some banks that handle MasterCard and Visa - will not demand payment from you until the problem is resolved, even if it takes a few months.

Ordering by telephone is not only a good way to do last-minute mail-order shopping, she points out, it is also a way to get more information before you actually place the order.

For instance, you should ask the company representative how the gift will be shipped. If it is a book, it may be shipped third or fourth class, a cheaper but much slower method than first class. Other gifts could be sent parcel post, also cheaper, but also slower.

Also ask about delivery time. The Federal Trade Commission requires mail-order companies to ship your order within the time promised, or if no time is stated, within 30 days of receiving a properly completed order and payment. If you pay by credit or charge card, the 30 days begins when you are charged, usually the day the phone order is made. Note that the rule says the item must be shipped within 30 days; it can take longer to actually get there, so if you're ordering Christmas gifts now, it's best to use a service that will ship the gift within a few days.

If there is a delay, the seller must inform you approximately how long it will be and offer you the chance to back out or order something else. If you do not respond to this offer in writing, the seller can assume you are willing to wait. It should provide a form to make it easy to respond.

You should also inquire about refund and return policies. For instance, the seller must refund your money within seven working days after receiving your cancel order if the gift cannot be shipped in 30 days. If a charge card was used , it has one billing cycle to inform the card issuer to credit your account.

If, after all your precautions, the gift still doesn't arrive on time, you do have some recourse. The recipient can send it back. If it was not opened, he doesn't even have to add postage. If he does have to pay to return it, he should request a return receipt. And he or you should send the merchant a separate letter explaining that the item is being returned, why, and what should be done about it - a refund, replacement, or credit.

While a mail-order gift may be easier, remember that it is usually at least as expensive as one you could buy in a store, and almost certainly more costly than what you would pay at a discounter.

So if you can do some comparison shopping first, the effort could save enough to buy a new pair of shoes for the holidays.

'Too old' for an IRA?

I am a widow, not yet old enough for social security, and earning minimum wages. I have a small savings. Would it be to my advantage to add to my individual retirement account (IRA) even though it would mean withdrawing the money from my savings? I am concerned that when I am ready to draw on social security there won't be anything to draw on, even though I am paying into it now. WS- S. K. An IRA could be very advantageous to you, as long as you are sure you won't need the money before you do retire. Until age 701/2 you can put up to $2,000 a year into the IRA and deduct this amount from your taxable income , even if you do not itemize deductions. So that's one advantage. Another is that the money in the IRA is accumulating interest tax-free until withdrawals are made, which must start at 701/2, though you can take much longer to take out all the money. There are early-withdrawal penalties, however, so be sure that you are not depleting your savings to the point that you cannot meet expenses for emergencies or special occasions without dipping into the IRA.

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