A day off work has been booked, or a babysitter found for the children, and you have set your date for Christmas shopping. As you prepare yourself, you make a mental map of the shops you will visit and the best place to park the car. Humming your favourite carol you set out on your venture. Then the Christmas imps call in the gremlins and you are faced with...
The 12 Laws of Christmas Shopping
It's in the catalogue but not in the store and the alternative is much more expensive.
Every colour and every size but the one you want is in stock.
Your parcels are always twice as heavy and bulky than you expected.
There is always a senior citizen ahead of you in the queue who is paying with a combination of gift vouchers and two-pence pieces.
Aforementioned senior citizen will always moan that Christmas isn't what it used to be.
The toddler in the pushchair behind you will throw its bottle and catch you just behind your knees.
There will always be a small child spreadeagled on the floor in exhaustion or mid-tantrum.
There is always one relative you forget, which means you have to rush out on Christmas Eve to grab something for them from the 24-hour garage.
One or more of your family or friends will have completed their shopping and wrapped their presents by the end of October.
At least one store will be playing 'I Wish it Could be Christmas Everyday' and all the others will be playing 'Merry Christmas Everybody'.
You spend hours searching for just the right present for the person who rings you up two days before Christmas and says 'just make it a bottle this year, we're cutting back.'
Your partner will always say 'what or who have you bought that for?'
These are not laws of nature and can, with a little ingenuity, be overcome.
Shop earlier and by mail-order or online if necessary. Before you order, make sure you can be available to accept the delivery or that you have a friendly neighbour willing to do this for you. A trip to collect your parcel may be more traumatic than visiting the shop!
Risk your street credibility and borrow your granny's tartan shopping trolley or look into the possibility of having your purchases delivered (see above). A lot of stores offer a 'carry to your car' service that can be invaluable - especially in the UK if it's combined with a 'lend an umbrella' scheme as well.
Pick presents from stores very unlikely to be frequented by senior citizens and mothers of young children, such as Anne Summers, Games Workshop and your local Goth record shop. You could also time your trip for the day before pensions and family credit are payable. Shopping in the evening may be helpful; but beware the hordes of bored husbands trailing after their wives and clogging up all the decent bars.
Make a list! If you do forget someone and have to visit the petrol station, don't just pick chocolate or bedraggled flowers. Grab a gift-bag and fill it with little sachets of windscreen wash and dashboard wipes, chewing gum and/or mints, air fresheners, a pen and notepad and a couple of coins for parking meters. For the non-motorist, why not try a gift-bag filled with paper hankies, menthol chewing gum, cold and flu remedy and cough sweets or hangover cures, earplugs and a sleep mask?
Just smile sweetly at your super-efficient friend or relative and say, 'but you will have missed all the three-for-the-price-of-two offers, and the sales didn't start until November'.
Earplugs are available from any high street chemist as a defence against random Slade and Wizzard songs.
Keep the present you bought for the cheapskate and pay a visit to the local off-licence. Buy a bottle of the cheapest, roughest wine you can find (it serves them right).
When your partner starts to criticise, throw yourself to the floor, spreadeagled, drum your feet against the nearest piece of furniture and scream 'that's it, next year you can do the shopping!'
And What to Buy for Whom?
Don't make the mistake of buying age-specific presents. There are grannies to whom the thought of scented drawer-liners and Barry Manilow CDs would induce a frightening rage and teenagers who would swoon at the thought of presents like these.
Try and find out what other presents will be received and choose something to complement this. If someone is getting an iPod in their stocking, in the UK, vouchers for legal downloads are available from your local Post Office.
One group traditionally difficult to buy for are boys between the ages of about 11 and 17. Why not fill a shoebox with items like whoopee cushions, gunge that makes revolting noises, a book of instructions to make paper planes, card-games, sweets and even marbles.
If the recipient plays a musical instrument, cleaning equipment, spare parts like reeds or plectrums, strings or rosin will be appreciated.
Don't overlook the fact that some people may like receiving socks and underwear, soap and talcum powder. A set of spare bulbs and fuses may also be appreciated by a motorist or biker.
For the men, food and drink seem to be appreciated and for the teetotal of both sexes, perhaps a ginger beer-making kit or an expensive natural cordial?
If all else fails, a cash gift or a service is far better than an expensive mistake. For harassed parents the offer of a few hours babysitting, a trip to a favourite place for an old friend, a promise to do some gardening, decorating or general DIY could count for more than the most expensive present. Think about your skills and which of your friends or relatives could benefit from them.