Shop Smart: Last-minute holiday shopping tips

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Holiday shopping can be stressful -- from choosing the right gifts, sticking to a budget, avoiding the last minute-scramble and more. The December issue of ShopSmart magazine, from Consumer Reports, is stuffed with holiday advice that can help shoppers select the perfect gift, wrap it like a pro, save on holiday purchases and more.

Here are some tips on how to shop smarter -- not harder:

* Get last-minute gift help. Last-minute shoppers have two things going for them -- deep discounts from retailers hoping to clear out their inventory and new ways to make gifting easy and even automatic. Feeling stumped about what to buy for the people left on your list? ShopSmart suggests trying a gift-finder tool for inspiration, such as the one at Gifts.com (gifts.com/finder).

* Avoid shipping fees. More stores are giving shoppers the option of ordering items online and picking their purchase up at a local store -- eliminating shipping charges. Best Buy, Finish Line and Target are among the retailers offering this perk.

* Cash in coins for gift cards. Coinstar kiosks won't charge a fee when users opt for a gift card instead of cash at a bunch of participating retailers. New merchants include Applebee's, GameStop, Home Depot and Southwest Airlines.

Once you have the perfect gift, it's time to wrap it up. ShopSmart shares some budget-friendly tricks for keeping wrapping costs down from paper artist Mollie Green, author of "Sweet Paper Crafts" (Chronicle Books, 2013):

* Load up on paper. Plain metallic and solid-colored papers are sold for a reasonable price at craft stores -- about 20 cents to $1 a foot, which can save at least $1 a foot over high-end papers.

* Skip ribbons and bows. Shoppers can buy a giant roll of red and white baker's twine for as little as $5. Or check out the sale bins at craft stores for yarn, rickrack, ball fringe and other inexpensive ribbon alternatives.

* Save on gift toppers. Look for inexpensive knickknacks to tie on gifts at the dollar store, such as small, shiny ornaments, toy Santas and candy canes.

As you navigate the mall parking lots during this holiday season, you may think that squeezing into an open space will be your biggest challenge. But Consumer Reports suggests that you think again.

That's because parking lots are where most mall-related crime occurs. Drivers and walkers navigating the lot are vulnerable to theft, and unattended vehicles loaded with packages are often open invitations for break-ins.

Consumer Reports offers this advice from law enforcement officials who patrol the country's busiest malls on how to reduce your chances of becoming a victim:

* Be choosy where you park. Sure, that isn't always easy. But it could be worth driving around a little to find a spot in a populated area instead of settling on one in a dark, remote location, especially if you are alone.

* Lock and stow. Many parking lot thefts occur because drivers neglect to perform the simplest task: locking the car and closing the windows. Hide valuables such as GPS devices, cell phones, laptops and iPods. If your GPS is mounted to your windshield, pull it off and try to clean off the suction marks so that thieves don't break into the car looking for it.

* Stay focused. "People walking through the parking lot don't pay as much attention as they used to," says Capt. Robert Guidetti of the Paramus, N.J., police department. Instead they are checking email or making calls. Look to your front, side and rear when walking to and from a store.

* Assume you're watched. Criminals watch for shoppers who put purchases in their car or trunk, then walk back into the store. Once you're gone, it can take only moments to break in and grab items. If you need to stow packages while shopping, repark your car in a different location, away from anyone who could have been observing, says Detective Bob Welsome of the New York City Police Department. Other options are to find out whether the mall has storage lockers available or ask security to hold your packages until you're ready to leave.


By the Editors of Consumer Reports (www.consumerreports.org).

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