By Ron VandenBoom
It may surprise a lot of people to learn that the busiest shopping day of the year is not the day after Thanksgiving as is popularly believed.
The actual "busiest day" for the last four years, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), has been the last Saturday before Christmas, followed by Dec. 23 and Dec. 22, respectively. Obviously, the last minute shopper is alive and well and keeping stores hopping in those final moments before Christmas day.
But the really smart shopper who expects to find the hottest items in toys, fashions, electronics, and jewelry had better shop early.
That's the message one gets when talking to Bobbie Davis, Havre's Big Kmart Toy Department manager.
"On Thanksgiving morning, I had 120 and they were gone like that," Davis said, waving her hand as she talked about Furby Babies, one of the hot toys this year. "I might have two the day after."
Furby Babies ranks third on the ICSC list of hot toys for 1999. The toys, according to Davis, are very similar to the regular Furby that proved to be such a smashing success last year, except that "these are about an inch shorter," she said.
Another hot toy Davis said she just can't keep in stock is the Rock and Roll Elmo and Ernie dolls. Ranked second on the ICSC list of popular toys, Rock and Roll Elmo and Ernie dolls are also making a return engagement this year in a slightly different form. Unfortunately, it is one item Havre shoppers may or may not get to see, depending on whether more get shipped from Kmart distribution centers to the local store.
If they do, Davis predicts, "They disappear real quick."
Davis said she does have the ICSC fourth most popular toy -- the Amazing Alley doll.
"I just got it in," she said, "I haven't even had a chance to read the box."
The Amazing Alley doll looks like any normal doll, but thanks to a computer chip, can recognize its own clothes and other items and it will talk to its owner.
"I'm not sure how well they'll sell, yet," Davis said.
The seventh-place doll, Millennium Princess, is currently out of stock at Big Kmart, but Working Barbie tied for seventh place and is in stock.
Other items on the ICSC list that are in stock include the Smart Flying Buzz from the Toy Story movie and WWF Net Wired Stone Cold Steve Austin dolls. They rank eighth and 10th, respectively, on the ICSC list. Both toys are heavy into electronics, sound effects, and in the case of the Steve Austin Doll, computers and the Internet.
Pokmon Fossil Cards are ranked, not surprisingly, first on the ICSC list and, in fact, made the list twice by also coming in fifth with Pokmon Pikachu Plush Dolls.
"Anything Pokmon is hot," Davis said "There must be 30,000 different kinds of them."
Actually only 150 cards make up a set of Pokmon playing cards, but other figures and devices have expanded the world of Pokmon beyond just cards. The Pikachu Plush Doll sells for just under $10 and joins a host of other Pokmon items Davis has in stock.
But shop early, Pokmon, like all other popular items, is destined to be snatched up early by hungry shoppers.
Games like Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit are traditional favorites that always do well at Christmas time, but the shoppers' chances of finding these items in stock is still good.
Other items like Play School are also plentiful and traditionally popular, Davis said.
Shoppers looking for unique gifts may also want to check out some of the special millennium toys and board games at Big Kmart.
Children compose the largest segment of the population to receive Christmas gifts in the U.S. They represent the largest single chunk of the gift giving dollar, but adults still spend more than 50 percent of their holiday dollars buying gifts for other adults. Of all dollars spent in non-anchor mall stores, 25 percent annually is spent on jewelry, according to ICSC. And the hottest items this year, said ICSC, are white metals like platinum, white gold and silver.
Janine Donoven, owner of J.M. Donoven Designs in Fine Jewelry, agrees with ICSC.
"White metals, white gold, platinum, and as always, diamonds," she said, when asked what the hot items were this Christmas. "Pearls have (also) made a really strong surge in recent years."
She added that, in Montana, Montana sapphires and Yogo sapphires seem to be popular.
"The solitaire diamond necklace for the millennium is good this year," she said.
The idea of mixing the end of the millennium with Christmas sales is something Donoven said she did not purposely set out to promote. She admits, though, that more people than she expected have come into her store seeking millennium pieces, or as she puts it, "pieces that are going to have lasting value in years to come that will make an extra special New Years gift."
She said it is mostly men who are doing the searching and that buyers are insisting that the entire 1999 be engraved on the item instead of just 99.
"Jewelry is a lasting gift," she said.
Just for fun, Donoven also has added the Argron Synctime battery-operated watch to her assortment of holiday ideas.
The watch will automatically link up with the atomic clock in Fort Collins, Colo. at 1 a.m. every day and reset itself to the "nanosecond" she said. "It's for the person that absolutely positively has to be on time."
ICSC also adds millennium charm bracelets and nature-inspired jewelry such as butterflies, ladybugs, and dragonflies as hot items this Christmas.
If jewelry is not on your shopping list but electronics are, Kmart clerk Stephen Binder may be able to help you select the perfect gift.
Topping Binder's list of popular items is the digital camera.
Designed to store pictures on a regular floppy disk that can later be downloaded into a computer, the cameras represent the wave of the future in home photography. Once downloaded, the images can be adjusted in a photoshop program and saved, e-mailed, placed on photo greeting cards, or printed on photo paper.
ICSC ranks the cameras the second hottest electronic items this Christmas.
Third on the ICSC list are cellular phones and fourth is the Sony PlayStation. Binder carries a phone card cellular phone in stock, he said, but the Sony PlayStation is "going fast."
The price of the PlayStation is less than $100, Binder said, compared to the $200 price tag they carried when they first came out and $50 cheaper than they were last year.
Fifth on the ICSC list are DVD players, and Binder agrees that these have been a popular item in Havre.
"We had one on sale for $199," he said, "regularly $279. We ran out with the sale."
More, he said, are expected in and he also expects they will be back on sale before Christmas. But for those who don't want to wait, there are three other varieties ranging from $259-$359 in stock.
Electronics are a popular Christmas item, but nothing compares with fashion for that personal gift.
Ruth Evans is a sales associate at Herberger's in Havre who said she hadn't had much of a demand for the fashion items on ICSC's list.
"We have a lot of velvet in the store, but it's not really blowing out of here," she said.
Clothing of velvet, cashmere, suede and chenille ranked first on the ICSC list of fashions for 1999.
Fleece vests and sweater sets are the items Evans said were hot in Havre.
"We've gotten those in in all departments," she said.
Grace Jackson, a sales associate in the Junior Department at Herberger's, agreed with Evans, saying they had not been able to keep fleece vests on the racks. But she added that she had seen more velvet lately being sold.
"And sweaters make very good gifts," she said.
Jackson singled out the old "hippy-style jeans," some with holes in them, and Nike T-shirts as two more items that appeal to the younger shopper.
Another interesting gift idea from the Lingerie Department at Herberger's is glow-in-the-dark underwear and Jo Boxer Pajamas, Jackson said.
Casey Jones from Spectrum Electronics is manning Spectrum's temporary holiday store in the village this season and he, too, found the top-ranked item on ICSC's electronics list not to be true in Havre.
The PalmPilot (or any handheld computer) is not what Jones has heard customers asking for this year, but he agrees with Binder that there is interest in digital cameras.
Flat panel computer monitors are another item that reached number five on the ICSC list but has not been a hot item in Havre.
"We have one at the office, but they're so expensive," Jones said.
Slim laptop computers are another item that Jones said he has heard no demand for in Havre, saying that he knew of little difference between slim laptops and any other kind.
Something Jones did think might be hot items this year were real-time video cameras that allow direct visual and electronic communication between computers. The software, camera, and microphone sell at Spectrum for about $100.