8/20/2012 2:15 PM ET|
How to avoid the mall until January
Shopping for the holidays doesn't have to mean a trip to the mall. Consider alternatives like local businesses or crafts fairs, where your chances of finding the perfect gift may be greater.
Some people love malls. I am so not one of them and never have been.
It's not just the crowded parking lots, the long lines and the indifferent sales help. It's also the overwhelming lack of originality. Though it may not be true that everything you see in a mall in America you can see in any other mall in America, it sure feels that way.
You don't have to be as allergic to malls as I am to be ready for alternatives this holiday season. With the help of my Facebook fans, here's a list of places you might consider shopping this year:
Local business districts
When the U.S. economy fell off a cliff, many of us realized how important it was to support our local businesses. Many of the shop owners live in our neighborhoods, donate to our schools and pay taxes that support the services we enjoy. I care a whole lot more about helping these local businesses succeed than I do ensuring that Wal-Mart or Target shareholders make money.
Locally owned stores may not have the huge inventories of the big-box stores and retail chains. But that's actually a good thing. The salespeople at our local stores actually know what's in stock and can answer questions about their inventory. Though you may not find the "doorbuster" sales that the big chains use to lure customers, prices overall are reasonable, because these smaller shops know they're competing against the big guys and Internet retailers.
"I live in a bedroom community that has a small town and we have some neat shops," wrote one reader. "I particularly like this shop that sells art, glass, and other unique and mostly one-of-a-kind items. Even knitted hats and scarfs. I try to buy some gifts there every year."
Whenever we see a cluster of white pop-ups, my husband knows we have to stop to take a look. I'm not drawn by produce alone; it's the artists I especially want to check out.
We bought an amazing ride-on toy ferryboat at a market in Seattle when my daughter was an infant -- and she still plays with it, eight years later. Our local farmers market features a guy who makes aprons with the logos of old feed sacks and an artisan who crafts beautiful bamboo cutting boards. Then there's the rock guy, who shares his enthusiasm for crystals and geodes with the fascinated children who come by every week.
In colder climates, farmers markets may shut down for the winter, but you can check the U.S. Department of Agriculture's searchable list to see if some are open near you.
Holiday boutiques and craft fairs
Crafting has gone way beyond the crocheted toilet-roll covers that Granny used to make. Thanks in part to sites such as Etsy and Craft, there's a whole new world of hipster crafters making really interesting stuff.
Some of these folks sneak into the traditional craft fairs and holiday boutiques you'll see hosted by churches, temples and schools. But many band together to have their own indie craft shows. You can find a list of upcoming shows here.
One of my Facebook fans nominated Powell's Books in Portland, Ore., as a favorite place to shop for holiday gifts. Your town may not have an independent bookstore that, like Powell's, fills a whole block, but chances are, it still has an independent bookseller that would welcome your business. Many bookstores offer a lot more than paperbacks and hardcovers -- you'll often find gifts, toys and reading paraphernalia.
Not every artist charges thousands of dollars for original works. Even well-established artists may have reproductions and other merchandise that could fit your budget. Our friend, landscape painter and animation artist Michael Humphries recently opened a studio in La Cañada Flintridge, near Los Angeles, that features his artwork on mugs, calendars and notecards as well as original works. If you have an arts district in your town, check to see whether there are open-studio tours or other events where you can peruse local artists' works.
If there's an area of your town that could be described as quaint or charming, or a town like that nearby, join the tourists in wandering through the shops there. One reader nominated the old-town area of Arlington, Va., "especially the Fine Gifts section of Arlington Pharmacy." You may be pleasantly surprised at the quality of what you find. Amid the cheap T-shirt shops and other tourist traps, there are often places that stock clever, charming and one-of-a-kind gifts as well. People on vacation tend to spend money, and shops go where the money is.
Museum gift shops
Looking for gifts that are a cut above the ordinary? Check out the stores at local museums. You'll find the classy, the unusual or the just plain fun -- many museum gift stores have a whole section devoted to kids and some also represent local artists or craftspeople. Kansas' Wichita Art Museum, to name just one, has a beautiful collection of jewelry, glassworks, puzzles and, of course, prints, posters and notecards.
If your list includes any kids, or former kids, check out your local hobby shop for model and craft kits. We're loading up on these this year, since we plan to spend several days in the mountains for the holidays and these can be a great way for the generations to create something together. At least one former kid on my list is getting one of the models he used to love to assemble as a boy -- but shhh, don't tell him.
Teachers supply stores
These shops stock more than alphabet banners for classrooms. They have seriously sturdy toys for kids of all ages that promote, yes, learning. The science sections in particular often have amazing kits, games and tools, including things like digital handheld microscopes, chemistry sets and geodes you can break open to see the crystals inside.
Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.
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For those who still have some names to cross off their holiday shopping list (and who doesn't?), free shipping from online retailers on Wednesday can be a great way to save money.