Up and down store-lined streets, shoppers are hustling along, swinging their bags filled with goodies.
I stopped random people around town and asked them, "What's in your bag?" It turns out that for many people this holiday season, the name at the very top of their Christmas list was — their own. No guesswork involved when you're buying something for your best friend — you.
Spending levels varied a lot. A dairy farmer's wife told me, "Milk prices suck." Add in the fact that they have a daughter in college, and she says the family will spend 25 to 30 percent less than last year on Christmas gifts.
But the young man who is now working two jobs — instead of only one like last year — is happy to use his extra income to spoil his three kids.
Christmas shopping this year? A mixed bag
49, high school custodian, West Bend, Wis.
"We started the day off just lovely," says Stoffel. She's talking about sipping peppermint patties (chocolate and peppermint schnapps) in Macy's Walnut Room at the outset of a long day of shopping here. She and her co-worker had already hit Macy's, Fannie May candy and Garrett Popcorn before they stopped at the Disney Store on Michigan Avenue en route to American Girl. Stoffel's Mickey and Minnie Mouse are for her own teddy bear collection, purchased in anticipation of an upcoming trip to California. The popcorn isn't a gift, either. She and her friend ate it on the long bus ride home.
19, college nursing student, Shawnee, Kan.
Bah and two friends drove to Chicago so she could pick up her visa for an upcoming trip to the Netherlands. With that business accomplished, she popped into Victoria's Secret and bought a lacy bright pink bra and matching undies for herself. Asked if she had plans for a special viewing, Bah laughs and says, "Maybe." Despite visits to many stores, none of the traveling trio actually bought Christmas gifts on their day in the big city.
54, homemaker, Kalamazoo, Mich.
A gold medalist in the category of Plan Ahead Christmas Shopping, Nelson displays Crate & Barrel bird ornaments to adorn next year's Christmas packages. As for this year's shopping, major Christmas gifts for the kids — college student Ellen, 20, and grad student Jim, 22 — will be electronics. On her own wish list? Husband Don, below, is "a great jewelry buyer."
67, computer science professor, Kalamazoo, Mich.
In his shopping bag, Kay Nelson's husband, Don, is carrying his wife's Christmas gift to him (no Christmas morning surprise here): a pair of warm Sorel boots. In a common wifely lament, she says, "He's very hard to buy for." Don also has a pair of $149.95 Bose headphones for daughter Ellen that were totally free. They were Ellen's Christmas present from her parents last year but they broke. The Nelsons returned them to the Bose store here for a replacement just before the one-year warranty expired. "We were thrilled," says Kay.
24, sous-chef, Chicago
Bolanos spotted the book "Latino in America," by Soledad O'Brien, while browsing at Borders and knew that it would be a good gift for her parents, who are interested in politics and Latino culture. "And it was on sale for $3.99," she says. "I would like to spend more" this year on Christmas gifts than last year, but "financially, it's kind of hard." She pays for some gifts in installments and has checked out used-book stores for rare finds about Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, a special interest of her mom's.
27, banquet server, Kansas City, Mo.
The coat from the Guess store is a delayed birthday gift that Medrano bought for himself. He's already sent Christmas money to relatives in California, so he didn't feel the need to buy gifts on his trip to Chicago. This year's holiday gift budget is "lots bigger than last year." That's because he worked in California then, where it costs much more to live. Besides, he's now working two jobs, so he has more to spend.