Late gift dash: not just men

As procrastination grows, the Saturday before Christmas is the busiest of the year.

There is no more time to procrastinate. Either you shop or you show up Wednesday with a red face and an empty bag.

So sometime late Tuesday, Luis Mocete will slip on his Walkman, take a deep breath, and finally wade in. He does it this way every year because he hates shopping and the crowds.

"Now, there are no excuses left," says the Yonkers resident.

He won't be alone. Surveys show that Americans have put off their shopping to the last minute, perhaps because there were six fewer shopping days this year, or maybe because, uh, well, it can wait until tomorrow.

As of last week, a National Retail Federation survey found the average consumer had completed only half his or her list. The Saturday before Christmas is the busiest retail day of the year. The website now offers "panic buttons." One newspaper ad for diamonds says, "Three days till Christmas. You, wrapped up in a bow, won't cut it."

Clearly, all this says something about the nation, but what? Is it just disorganized? Is it a national personality quirk?

Certainly, the proliferation of advertisements, specialty stores, and online retailers can make the choices seem overwhelming.

There's also the new dynamics of gender. That subclass of consumers known as males has long been known for procrastination. But now more women are shopping later in the season. The change reflects, in part, the rise of two-income households that has left many families pressed for time.

If some Americans of both sexes simply feel too busy to shop, others now wait consciously for last-minute bargains.

In fact, this year's pattern may be a matter not just of time - the shorter shopping season - but of money. Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, blames the retailers themselves. "They have trained the consumer to wait for the bargains."

Men behaving 'badly'

That's certainly the case for Dallas resident Ross Coulter, who won't start his shopping until Tuesday. "I find on Christmas Eve, a lot have already started their sales," he remarks. But Mr. Coulter has been waiting for the last minute for a long time. "Since I was a teen, I would never plan ahead, and all of a sudden realize that, gosh, I need to get a present."

Among the male of the species, he's not alone - something understood by many retailers.

A Wal-Mart ad shows two men, "Dave and Sumner" driving up to a store. Says Dave: "As a rule, women do not know how to procrastinate. Sumner: "Don't have a clue." When Dave announces that his wife finished her Christmas shopping in August, they both announce, "Boooooring!"

Many men, in fact, are like New Yorker Rob DeRocker, who loathes shopping. "I think of myself as a low-maintenance kind of guy. I don't really shop until I run out of socks."

But there is hope that men can be reformed. Just ask Mr. DeRocker. On Christmas eves of yore, he used to be found at the corner newsstand ripping out magazine subscription cards to give to his relatives under the tree. "It was a pretty pathetic picture," he readily admits.

But then there was a miracle, so to speak: He got married.

And his wife, Melinda, is very, very organized. She knew how to take care of his procrastinating ways. She tells him where and when to go. "I get this call. My wife says, 'Go to this store and a woman named Angela will be waiting for you.' "

A shift by women

But the NRF survey shows that contrary to what "Dave and Sumner" think, women are also learning how to shop at the last minute. One is Washington resident Carla Sims, who has just been too busy to hit the malls. Her predicament also illustrates a difference between the sexes. "My husband said, 'We can take 15 minutes and run over to Macy's and get something,' " she says. "A man might be able to do that, but then the gift is not that thoughtful."

New Yorker Judy Katz has figured out a way to make her procrastination appear to be part of a plan.

When she flies to Dallas to visit her family, she tells them there isn't enough room in her bags. "Then I tell them, 'We'll go shopping together.' " She rationalizes that her gifts always stand out "since you get them after Christmas."

After Christmas? Yes, some procrastinators envision themselves in the malls after the holidays.

That's the case with Charles Wilkins of McClain, Va., who says getting engaged right after Thanksgiving upset his routine. Now, since he and his fiancée won't see their relatives until Saturday, they plan to shop on the 26th.

The experts' example

Even some people who counsel against procrastination do it themselves. Dr. Joe Peraino, a Houston psychologist, speaker, and personal coach, admits that as of last week he had only done a "teeny" bit of shopping. "From what I've been able to tell, there is an increase in procrastination," says Dr. Peraino, who tries to help college students avoid waiting till the last minute on assignments.

And Debra Lund in Salt Lake City expects to be buying her presents at the last minute. She works for FranklinCovey, which devises systems to keep people organized. Ms. Lund says she is coping with serious family medical issues, which means she is shopping first for her mother and won't get around to her own family until ... well, probably now.

"Sometimes procrastination," she says, "is what we do so that the more important things get done."

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