This Year's Choice Gift: Biker Mice From Mars?

As holiday shopping season begins, retailers and customers alike brace for the crush

TODAY, in millions of homes across America, people are drawing up lists, checking them twice, and then deciding to put off their Christmas shopping until later.

Much later - like maybe Christmas Eve.

Yes, once again it's time for the holiday-shopping-avoidance season.

The day after Thanksgiving used to be the biggest retail day of the year.

But over the last decade, shoppers jaded by crowds and high prices have delayed spending more and more, to the point at which Dec. 23, or even the 24th, is the busiest for store cash registers.

This trend has retailers biting their nails. They want to sell as much as possible before they slash prices. Yet customers seem to expect pre-Christmas sales, and may not go to malls in large numbers until they begin. ``Christmas shopping has almost become a game of chicken,'' says Isaac Lagnado, president of the New York consulting firm Tactical Retail Solutions. ``Who'll blink first, the customer or the retailer?''

He estimates that the day after Thanksgiving will account for about $3 billion in retail receipts. But what he calls the top 10 ``monster days,'' most in late December, ring up even more dollars. The top day, which he predicts will be the Thursday before Christmas, will approach $7 billion in sales.

Mr. Lagnado thinks that this should be a moderately good shopping season, with retailers posting a 5.5 percent gain on comparable store sales. Electronics will do well. Off-price manufacturers' outlets are big. Furniture and home furnishings are very big - people are snapping up nest-feathering items such as candlesticks. Cosmetics are monster-sized. But specialty clothing is in the basement, except for perennial gift favorites. ``Cashmere is doing well,'' he says.

Then there are toys. And aren't they your favorite part of shopping? The tears. The tantrums unless a special item is obtained. The fistfight at Toys 'N Inferno over the last Biker Mice from Mars, and the joyous moment when the paper is ripped off and your child goes: ``I wanted the one whose head comes off!''

The fanciest hot toys are TV-interactive. TV Teddy contains a sensor that reacts to signals broadcast by special TV Teddy videotapes. Then he blurts out something that appears to react to action on screen. (No, not ``Hey! This is really stupid!'') The scary part about TV Teddy and counterpart Toby Terrier is that toymakers are pushing items that only work when the TV is on. This raises the ire of educators. The less-scary part is that TV Teddy seems the type of expensive toy kids beg to have and then tire of in nano-seconds.

Of course, there are clever toys that don't rely on video images. At the Imaginarium chain store, Bumble Ball is big. It's a ball covered with knobs that contains a vibrating unit. Kids turn it on, then hang on with screeches of delight. ``Their whole little body shakes,'' says Beverly Meyers, manager of a suburban D.C. Imaginarium.

And for adults? The floating candlestick is a perennial favorite at Crate & Barrel, a home-decorating chain that's impossible to find your way out of. Maybe that's how they sell the candlesticks. You have to buy them because you're worried you'll be marooned in the glassware section overnight.

Another favorite there is decorative reindeer from the Philippines. ``We just sell a million of them,'' says Cissy Barnes, Crate & Barrel's Washington area manager.

The crush retailers feel at holiday time is shown by how the store bulks up its staffs. At the Pentagon City mall store, the normal complement of help is 50 to 60. During December, Ms. Barnes will hire 80 to 100 more.

The floating candlestick is nice, but maybe it is just, well, not serious enough. You want something that says you care, ``solidity.'' Something that will always be there, doesn't need batteries, and you can get in carry-on luggage.

You want . . . corporate shares? ``Give a gift of stock,'' urges Tom Borden, a Dean Witter Reynolds spokesman. ``Instead of giving a toy, give financial security.'' He pauses a moment: ``Hopefully, it won't decay.''

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