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Navigating The Madness At the Mall

Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page VA20

"I like to enjoy December," she said as a salesman bundled the chosen slippers into a shopping bag adorned with snowflakes. "I still like to come to the mall, but I don't like to have to shop and stand in line. I want to have everything all wrapped up so I can enjoy December without panic."

For most people, however, four weeks of orchestrated panic begin tomorrow, which marks the traditional start of the holiday shopping season. Many stores will open early -- some achingly so -- and entice shoppers with one-day-only gifts and special discounts.

At Tysons Corner Center, a couple of department stores will open as early as 7 a.m. Counting on at least some customers to be eager to line up well before daybreak, Fair Oaks mall is hosting an early bird event at 5:30 a.m., handing out doughnuts, coffee and orange juice as well as books, CDs and movie passes.

"We've never done it before, so we have no idea how many people will show up," said Ferris Kaplan, marketing director for the mall. Noting that one toy store at Fair Oaks typically has hundreds of people waiting when it opens at 5 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving, he added, "Some of them may want to stay in line."

December, with the holidays of Christmas and Hanukah, is the month stores across the land live for. In truth, the shopping season seems to have already started. Like so many racers bursting out of the gate before the starting gun, some stores began setting up their Christmas decorations before Halloween. By now, malls are bursting with shining trees and Santa's villages, snowflakes and reindeer, with the sound of carols in the background.

But even people who usually enjoy shopping can find themselves overwhelmed by the task of holiday gift-buying. They wear themselves out, traipsing from store to store laden with heavy bags. Or they procrastinate until, say, Christmas Eve. And then they may end up with a gift that goes to the return counter or the back of a closet.

It doesn't have to be that way, according to people who shop for a living.

They are called personal shoppers. Some are freelancers, self-described shopaholics who have turned their passion into a profession. Others are employed by department stores year-round to help customers pull together wardrobes, and this time of year they find their clients handing them Christmas lists.

Donna Dorsch, 44, has been a personal shopper for more than 20 years, the last 15 of them at Nordstrom in Tysons Corner Center. She has built up a clientele and knows their lifestyles, budgets and existing wardrobes. But anyone can call and make an appointment with her.

"The idea behind the service is to save clients time," she said, sitting in the lobby of the store's Personal Touch department. "I take their gift list over the phone. Sometimes they suggest items. Other times they say they want a gift for less than $50 for a niece or a sister, and they have no idea what to get. We make an appointment. We do the legwork, and when they walk in, the gifts are all laid out. The customer says, 'Yes, yes, no, no,' and when they've made their selections, we give them gift cards to fill out."

Dorsch believes the most successful gifts combine the familiar with the unexpected.

"The best gift is the one we wouldn't buy ourselves," she said. "Like a luxury item."

To be certain the gift is something the recipient would use, Dorsch advises the client to do a little sleuthing in the closet if that is possible.

"Look for the labels and the sizes in clothing. That will tell me what the fit is, as well as what their taste is. Do they have a lot of color in their wardrobe? If it's all black, that tells me the person is conservative, classic, sophisticated. If they have patterns, are they plaids and florals or geometrics and stripes? A good gift is very similar to what they already have, but something they may not buy themselves. Something to splurge on."

Dorsch tells clients looking to buy gifts for co-workers to avoid most clothing -- it implies a degree of intimacy that may be inappropriate -- and to shop for accessories instead.

Even the mundane can seem special, Dorsch suggests.

"If you're going away for the weekend with your significant other, put some pajamas and wine in a basket along with two tickets to a play," she said.

Ann Metz of Potomac has used Dorsch's services for years, both for her own wardrobe and for gifts. She has already completed 90 percent of her holiday shopping and does not expect to step inside a store until the new year.

"I try not to go anywhere near the mall pretty much after Thanksgiving," she said. "And never on a weekend. It's just too much. It will suck the Christmas spirit out of you. Too many crowds, too many lines, too much madness in parking lots."

A personal shopper keeps her from wasting time wandering around, Metz said. Her husband usually picks out his gifts to her under Dorsch's guidance.

"It was surprising when my husband got me whole outfits, and they matched," she said. "A sweater, slacks, jewelry -- it was all put together. And in my size. I think he even got me shoes that go with it. That's the real surprise. Everything kind of works, and you go, 'Oh!' It's an extraordinary service."

At the Saks Fifth Avenue store in Tysons Galleria, customers using the services of the store's three personal shoppers are ushered through a heavy wooden door into a back room with silk wallpaper. They sit on a couch before an armoire with a television set, beside a niche with a telephone for personal phone calls, and sip water from Baccarat glasses served on a silver tray. Though it is called the Fifth Avenue Club, the service is free to anyone who shops there.

"The silk walls should not be intimidating," said Azita Shini, 43, a personal shopper with Saks for 17 years. "The club was designed for women who go to charity lunches, but today it's more for the professional woman. The main thing we offer is time. Our customers want to be in and out."

An array of small gifts is spread on the floor, waiting for a client to peruse. A small topiary tree in a gold pot could be a hostess gift, Shini suggests. Even a woman who wears little makeup could appreciate a selection of lip glosses in a small leather box. And for the bachelor, there is a little leather address book labeled "Blondes, Brunettes, Redheads."

Typically, as Christmas approaches, Shini's clients are more likely to be men looking for gifts for the women in their lives.

"Certain husbands call me on Christmas Eve, at 6 o'clock," she said with a laugh.

This year, the more popular items are ponchos, brooches and brightly colored sweater sets.

And Shini doesn't have to think twice when asked what a personal shopper would like to find under her tree on Christmas morning.

"A spa," she said. "Every personal shopper needs a day at a spa."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company