From Hans Sternberg, author of We Were Merchants, former chairman of Maison Blanche, at one time the country’s largest family-owned department store chain:

We Were Merchants is a new book describing the creativity of merchants at a time when department stores were largely family-owned or controlled. The personalized service of those 30-year-ago stores is now mostly gone; replaced by larger corporate entities whose owners are seldom seen. Show windows are a rarity, except in the largest cities. The creativity and uniqueness of each department store name has become blurred, in comparison to what once was. Sometimes it seems that all the stores look alike and sell the same things. Yes, thank goodness there still are exceptions. However, the basics of shopping haven't changed, although they may not be quite as entertaining; and new venues, like the Internet, bring the shopping to you. Here are tips for planning your shopping trip and recapturing some of the FUN in gearing up for the holidays:

MUST HAVES: Note the popular “must have” items, and shop early, because they will sell out. Do this by checking more than one source, including the Internet. Remember also: these are tough economic times, for the stores as well as for a lot of the shoppers. With sales flat or down, one of the defenses retailers use is to stock less merchandise, and size selections will be broken earlier than in previous years. You may even want to call ahead and have your choice held at the cash register with your name attached. Buy these products the day after Thanksgiving, or shortly thereafter

LAST MINUTE ITEMS: Other things can be purchased closer to December 25th, since retailers traditionally cut prices as the “end of the season” approaches. Selection and available sizes become limited, so be careful not to wait too long.

BEST TIME TO BARGAIN SHOP: Thanksgiving used to be the biggest shopping day of the year, and it’s still a good one. The inventory is flowing and availability is at its best. But if you’re looking for bargains, the second Saturday before Christmas will beat it by a mile, as prices will drop.

LAST CALL: The week before Christmas is a time retailers program major reductions of any seasonal items, including stuffed animals and over-stocked categories, toys, some jewelry (but not all), sweaters, jackets, fall apparel of any kind. Retailers know the inventory has got to move. If you wait until the day before Christmas, you are in trouble. You will be unlikely to find what you most want in your preferred color and size. Having to settle for second or third best never has the thrill that’s part of Christmas giving. Good luck!

DO YOUR HOMEWORK: Read the ads, your favorite Internet sites, and the catalogs; collectively, they are still your best sources. The “special deal” from a company you never heard of is probably not a good idea for a lot of reasons, not least of which are returns and exchanges

ONLINE SHOPPING: Internet shopping can get tricky after the middle of December, since many sellers may not have good intelligence on their own inventories, and will “sell” things which actually are no longer in stock. It won’t be deliberate, but fulfillment can get sloppy as sales are at full throttle and the sales staff is not, being tired and harried. Also, watch for free shipping as a hook on the Internet. Not having to pay sales taxes (in many cases) and free shipping can be winners.

BEST BARGAINS – FEWER CHOICES: If the day after Christmas still works for you, then that’s the beginning of the week when the biggest bargains appear. Be aware, however, that merchandise will be thoroughly picked over (unless the stores are in more trouble than they are today), and the most desirable items, sizes and colors will be gone. I personally recommend buying boxed Christmas cards and gift wrap supplies at that time, putting them in a closet for next year, after taking advantage of the 75% reductions. (This doesn’t work with cakes and cookies.)

My bias is in favor of visiting the bricks and mortar, being the traditional retailer that I am.

STICK TO YOUR BUDGET: Always have a plan, and stick to it. We retailers are experts at tempting you to spend more than you budget. That's our job. Using cash or a debit card creates a better control of your spending than a credit card. “Making a list and checking it twice” is still good advice.

Happy Holidays (and Happy Shopping).

Hans Sternberg