Truly Last-Minute Holiday Shopping Options for Deal Hunters – Or the Merely Desperate

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Don’t feel down that it’s December 24 and you still have shopping to do. There are plenty of quick and easy options to consider—and you may even be rewarded for waiting so long.

Besides, you’re hardly alone if you’re shopping at the last minute. Some 17 million Americans will hit the malls on December 24, per a Consumer Reports poll. And, as luck would have it, the procrastinating grasshoppers out there may wind up getting better bargains than the diligent ants who wrapped up their holiday shopping weeks ago (and who have probably been bragging about it).

According to the most recent data from the retail-sales tracking company ShopperTrak, it hasn’t been a particularly strong season for retailers. Due to unexpectedly mediocre numbers in November and December, ShopperTrak now forecasts retail holiday sales to grow by 2.5% year over year in 2012, down from the 3.3% increase it originally predicted. Due to lagging sales and retailer fears that they could be left with too much inventory, experts expect 70% of Black Friday prices to be back in stores during the last-minute shopping rush. “Some of the prices are even lower than the door-buster deals on Black Friday,” Mike Fridgen, CEO of the price-predicting site, told NBC News. “So these are exceptional deals.”

(MORE: Beware Panic Shopping! How to Make a Last-Minute Gift Count)

“I’d be surprised if anything isn’t on sale,” one Macy’s executive said to the Detroit News, which offered this other insight on the likelihood of huge last-minute markdowns as well:

“The size of the discounts is more aggressive when you feel the consumer is more cautious. And most retailers believe the consumers are more cautious this year. So they’re trying to incentivize more,” said Tom Lounibos, the CEO of SOASTA, a Web and mobile performance and analytics company in Mountain View, Calif.

The discounting on electronics and clothing is expected to be especially aggressive, though prices should be as good or better during the post-Christmas sales. For that matter, the bargain-tracking site dealnews expects that, like last year, some retailers will try to catch the attention of shoppers by starting their “after Christmas” sales a few days before Christmas. It’s all semantics, of course, and what matters most to shoppers should be that they’re getting the goods they want, at the price they want.

As for shoppers who still need to gather gifts that can be doled out on December 25, they’re likely to simply want to check items off their lists in jiffy—and in the easiest ways possible. With that in mind, here are some very last-minute approaches:

Ship to Store
Sure, you could just head over to any number of stores and wander the aisles looking for inspiration. But the clock is ticking, and saving time is as easy as purchasing presents online with the free “ship to store” option offered by most major retailers. Despite the name, in many cases, there’s no real shipping involved. The store just gathers the items from its in-house inventory and has them ready for you to pick up. In any event, it’s convenient—beats hunting through the aisles to find these items yourself. Make your purchase in the morning and by midday or early afternoon, the order should be ready for you to pick up locally at Walmart, Best Buy, Sears, and other stores.

(MORE: Why Holiday Season ‘Self-Gifting’ Is Such a Huge Retail Trend)

Traditional In-Store Shopping
While the weekend’s all-night shopping hours have passed and many retailers are closing early on Christmas Eve (around 6 p.m. is typical), some stores are maintaining extended hours on December 24. Target stores are open until 9 p.m. on Monday, and most Toys R Us and Barnes & Noble stores won’t shut their doors until 10 p.m.

Monthly Clubs
For the right person, an “… of the month club” (ice cream, beer, book, cheese) is the perfect gift. Givers may find such presents even more perfect—because you can reveal the gift in a nice card on Christmas morning without telling anyone you paid for it minutes beforehand. MarketWatch recently put together a list of some of the more unusual and quirky (read: personalized) monthly clubs, which deliver a regular shipment of bacon, exotic fruit, socks, caviar, or dog treats.

Gift Cards
Conveniently, the most requested gift this season—favored by 60% of consumers—is also among the easiest to buy: It’s the gift card, a range of which is probably available at your local supermarket and drugstore. The popularity of gift cards shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the rise of another holiday trend: self-gifting. In both cases, what we see is that people increasingly want to cut to the chase and just pick out something for themselves.

Many retailers and restaurants make it especially tempting to buy gift cards at this time of year with the advent of special bonus cards awarded with each purchase—think $5 extra for every $25 spent. Most of these “cards” can be purchased in digital versions too, meaning it’s not even necessary to leave the house. Unsurprisingly, Transaction Wireless predicted that December 24 would be the biggest day of the year for e-gift card sales. The possibilities include Fandango, Amazon, Starbucks, Sony, and more—with the latter offering a $20 bonus with the purchase of a $100 digital card.

Don’t be ashamed: 4% of respondents in the CR poll said they’d be handing out IOUs on Christmas morning. Stuff happens. And people who love you will understand. The folks receiving an IOU may even like it better this way because, thanks to guilt and embarrassment, you’re likely to promise more than you would have given had you gotten your act together on time.

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Years of marketing efforts have pumped up gift cards as the more thoughtful, more personal, just-as-practical alternative to cash. But let’s be real: When you have to argue that something is “just as good,” the truth is that it’s not quite as good. There’s a mental hurdle that exists for givers and recipients alike that stops some from admitting this is so, but deep down we all understand that cold hard cash is still the world’s most useful gift to receive. For proof, one needs to look no further than the fact that many gift cards never get used. Does cash ever sit in a draw for months or years because it’s too much of a hassle to use it? Cash never comes with fees either.

If handing over plain cash just seems too crass, consider some of the many creative ways featured on Pinterest that cash has been doled out to recipients. Then again, that sort of creativity probably takes up time that you don’t have.