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December 22. 2012 9:44PM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: That last-minute shopping spree


 
As I planned for a quick weekend trip to visit family for the holidays, I could feel the time ticking away. While I wrapped gifts in the clunky way most men do - does this ribbon clash with the wrapping paper? - I pondered what to do about those people on my list for whom I had yet to shop or whose emerging pile of presents just didn't seem quite enough.

Then I took a deep breath and returned to the 21st century, where you would have to be held captive in remote prison with no Internet access to truly miss your chance to finish your Christmas buying spree.

Shopping on Thanksgiving? Black Friday? Cyber Monday? Those were just the engines humming for the start of the shopping season, which runs full throttle straight through Christmas and beyond.

You can always find a 24-hour drugstore to pick up a gift for that unexpected guest (Russell Stover chocolates at CVS?) or head to one of several Walmarts in New Hampshire that are always open around the clock. This time of year, Target, Kohl's, Kmart and other major department stores are open late as they try to compete with the world's largest retailer.

This year, Macy's decided to keep nearly all of its 800 stores open 24 hours a day during the final holiday shopping weekend. Stores shutting down at midnight tonight will reopen at 7 a.m. on Monday, but 23 Macy's stores will remain open nonstop until 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve. (The company reported that its sales were off in November by 0.7 percent compared to last year so it could use that extra push.)

For New Hampshire residents, the closest 24-hour store is in South Shore Plaza in Braintree, Mass. Your penalty for driving to Massachusetts at 3 a.m. to pick up that Ralph Lauren winter coat your hubby simply can't do without is 6.25 percent sales tax.

Or you could give him some plastic instead.

Gift cards are heralded as the one-size-fits-all solution, the most likely present not to be regifted. Who wants to trade away credit for some five-dollar foot-longs?

That's what Louise Adinolfi was thinking when she stopped by the Subway on Hanover Street in Manchester to pick up a couple of gift cards for a secret Santa event she was going to last week. Adinolfi works just across the parking lot of the Hannaford shopping center at a branch of St. Mary's Bank. The credit union generates strong traffic in gift cards itself this time of year via Visa gift cards it sells for $2.95 above their denomination.

"I think it's practical when you don't know what to buy somebody," said Adinolfi, a sales and service representive at the bank. "They can use it for whatever they want. I just got one the other day off my Visa credit card. I had earned so many miles, and I got a $50 gas card."

Vikram Patel, who owns the Subway restaurant and another in Merrimack, says his shops sold about 150 gift cards over the past couple of weeks, most valued at $15 or $20.

About 85 percent of U.S. consumers will exchange gift cards this season, pushing sales to $110 billion and growing 10 percent over last year, says research firm CEB TowerGroup. Gift cards are shifting from last resort to first choice, says the company, which has been issuing a gift card report for seven years.

"Gift cards are no longer the unwanted fruitcake of the holiday season," CEB TowerGroup says.

Still, while for a teenager that $50 Best Buy gift card means a shopping trip for a video game, it might come up as fruitcake to someone else.

And thus, it may be regifted. For that, you have websites like giftcardrescue.com, cardpool.com and plasticjungle.com that will buy your unused gift cards - for a percentage of their worth, of course - and sell you someone else's "fruitcake" card at a discount.

Still a better choice than that box of chocolates from the drug store.

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Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.

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