The countdown to Christmas is on - only 25 more days - and shoppers are out, lists and credit cards in hand. Yet anyone observing consumer behavior this month might be tempted to call the beginning of the 2005 holiday season the Year of the Extreme Shopper.
As early as 2 a.m. the morning after Thanksgiving, hopeful customers began lining up outside stores across the country, waiting for a chance to buy "doorbuster" specials when stores opened at 5 a.m. Some shoppers camped out in cars. Others braved frigid temperatures outside, huddling under comforters and blankets, hoping to snap up deeply discounted DVDs for $3.99, laptops for $200, and the year's hottest toys.
Here and there, shouting and shoving matches broke out as artful dodgers tried to shorten their wait by cutting in line. The fisticuffs were reminiscent of preholiday toy-store scuffles in the 1980s, when parents fought over scarce Cabbage Patch dolls.
It's the tackier side of giving, to be sure. Call it retail madness, or chalk it up to love - an Extreme Shopper's desire to grant at least one wish on a special someone's gift list. To the early-bird victors belong the holiday spoils.
But for disappointed recipients who don't find what they'd hoped for under the tree, this could also become the Year of the Gift Rejecter. The seasonal dilemma - what to do with holiday presents you don't like or can't use - has a new solution: Sell them on the Internet.
Even before Thanksgiving, a three-month-old website called Whabam.com was promoting its service as a way to sell unwanted holiday gifts. Recipients simply post items on the site, then pay a 1 percent service fee when they're sold. What could be easier? The process offers cool efficiency and reassuring anonymity. Your aunt will never know that her hot-pink polka-dot scarf is on its way to a stranger.
Then there is that other increasingly popular trend for Gift Rejecters, called "regifting." Don't like what you've just opened, or it's the wrong size or color? No problem. Just rewrap and pass it along to someone else.
Even revered etiquette expert Emily Post has said that she regifts - discreetly, of course. The rules are simple: Be sure to remove all telltale "To" and "From" gift tags. Give only unused items. Don't pass along one relative's gift to another family member. And, such social arbiters say, don't feel guilty. Waste not, want not.
Once upon a more innocent time, when choices were fewer and gifts simpler, such practices were unheard of. Back in the days when an orange in a stocking was regarded as a luxury, few recipients would have dreamed of rewrapping it or selling it.
Today these practices grow out of affluence. Everyone still talks a good line that it's the thought that counts. But increasingly, it seems, it's really the gift that counts for some recipients. Sophisticated consumers know what they want, right down to the model number. Woe to the giver who gets it wrong, or who arrives at the mall long after the 5 a.m. doorbuster bargains are sold out.
No wonder gift certificates are becoming increasingly popular. They may be decidedly dull under the tree, but there's no regifting required, since they allow for individual choices. A gift card for a bookstore, for instance, suits recipients of any age who find pleasure in the printed word.
On a costlier scale, suitable perhaps for generous grandparents to consider, is the gift of camp for children. It's a present guaranteed to inspire memories that last long after this year's most popular toys are broken and forgotten.
For gift-buyers making a list and checking it twice, it can be humbling to think that a carefully chosen purchase might fail to please. Still, as shoppers head to the mall with high hopes and generous hearts, December serves as a reminder of the pleasure of giving, and the satisfaction inherent in every act of generosity, however modest or grand.
The 17th-century French dramatist Pierre Corneille could have been speaking for givers and regifters alike when he wrote, "The manner of giving is worth more than the gift."