CHRISTMAS is only 20 days away. But don't panic, say shopping experts. And to keep the holiday season one of giving and not just gifting, now is the time to plan a strategy with ``the thought that counts.'' A good gift has personal value for the giver and receiver, says Suzy Gershman, shopping specialist and co-author of the book series ``Born to Shop.''
``Anyone can spend money,'' she quips. ``You want to show that there's something special between you and me. The holiday season is an opportunity to show how much you care about someone and how clever you can be to make that connection.''
Ms. Gershman predicts a turnaround from what she calls ``the excesses in the '80s.'' ``People will go into value-oriented giving in the 1990s,'' she says. ``It's got to be practical, but it should also be just enough extravagant and whimsical.''
For example, Gershman and her ten-year-old son went to a mall one day to an outfit where you can tape your own rock-and-roll video. They chose ``You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling,'' duplicated the video (fairly inexpensively), and are sending copies to relatives as gifts. ``Not only did we have fun doing it, but my son brings all his friends in to see it - we're frozen in time,'' she says.
Gift certificates and tickets to concerts, theater, or sporting events are other favorite alternatives. Museum memberships and subscriptions to magazines or out-of-town newspapers are also good choices, says the pro shopper.
Like many other shopping consultants, Gershman sees a trend toward service-oriented gifts. We're moving away from goods and into services, she says. For example, as a gift for her father, Gershman will go through his home movies, pick out the best ones, and have them transferred onto a videocassette.
Emily Cho, a professional image consultant for 18 years, is also known as a ``master shopper.'' Referring to a holiday shopping poll conducted by Mastercard, Ms. Cho says that more than anything else this year, adults want the gift of time.
``Service is the gift of time,'' she says. ``If my little 8-year-old would take out the garbage, I would be thrilled!'' People are leaning toward that which is practical, says Cho, who intends to give her parents ``hours of organizing their photos.''
Some people donate money to charities or buy their friends memberships to organizations dedicated to helping the environment or human rights. The recipient usually gets a letter stating that a donation has been made in his or her name.
For the past three years, Allied Whale, a research group at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, has promoted finback whales as a holiday ``gift.'' For $30 one can ``adopt'' a whale for a year. The money goes to finback whale research. It's a gimmick, admits research associate Bob Bowman - you'll never actually see the whale you sponsor. But people are educated and feel like they're helping. Other goodwill programs involve people in need, animal and environmental groups, education funds, historic preservation, even trees.
Many families decide on themes for holiday giving. Some give themselves a vacation trip. Others set price limits or chip in for gifts. Large families may draw names from a hat so that each family member has to give to only one other person. Gershman recalls a family who settled on a food theme: The gifts ``had to be useful, but somewhat extravagant and within a moderate price range; no fruitcakes allowed.'' Too, there's the make-your-own theme. ``The best gifts are the handmade gifts from the heart,'' Gershman says.
Gifts for children can be difficult, since children are very picky. ``Kids tend to know what they want in terms of toys,'' says Jeanne Kiefer, managing editor of Penny Power, a young people's publication by Consumer Reports. Magazine subscriptions, music or sports lessons, tapes, and movie tickets are good alternatives, she says, adding: ``No one will turn down a good board game.''
If you're still baffled about what to give someone, Suzy Gershman suggests brainstorming. Write down everything you think of when you think of that person, she says. ``I just play Pictionary in my brain,'' she says.
Most of all, says Cho: ``Be creative - try to push yourself to use your imagination,'' adding that the best gift she ever got was flowers every month for a year.