Ho! Ho! Ho! I know what you're getting for Christmas. Bargains, and lots of them.
A Members Only jacket marked down 20 percent at Hecht's, a pair of Timberland boots on sale at Woodies, an electric typewriter backspaced from $299 to 99 bucks at Bloomingdale's.
Hou can tell this is Christmas 1984 -- the year of doublespeak -- because all the after-Christmas sales started before Christmas this year, and some of them started before Thanksgiving.
There are midnight-madness sales at Zayre, 8 a.m. breakfast bargains at all the department stores, even 6 to 7 p.m. specials at Syms, where "we never have a sale."
The promotional blizzards that have buried consumers in bargains for the last several years are arriving even earlier this year. In case a couple of 20 degree nights already have banished fall's warm memories, remember that autumn was more like August this year and nobody, but nobody, buys winter coats before it gets cold.
The late fall coincided with a belated slowdown in consumer spending, which had been extraordinarily strong until a few weeks ago. As a result, most stores are stocked to the ceiling with merchandise, more inventory than merchants would like to have even at the busiest season of the year.
That's good news for consumers, as anyone who can read a 25-percent-off sign can understand.
And it's not really bad news for retailers. At least not yet. The early markdowns and heavy promotion are thus far aimed at maximizing profits rather than minimizing losses resulting from unsold merchandise.
The stores aren't unloading goods because they have to; they're hyping sales now in hopes of avoiding markdowns later on.
The strategy seems to be working. The Hecht Co.'s big blowout a couple of weeks ago produced the biggest day's business in its history, with sales ringing up at the tune of a $1 million an hour during peak volume.
Just as department stores' dazzling decorations set the scene for Christmas shopping, the big stores' heavy promotion determines the pace of Christmas selling.
When the anchor stores start marking down junior sweaters, you can be sure that boutiques and specialty shops up and down the malls will cut prices to compete. Whether you're shopping Foxmoor Casuals at Springfield Mall or Saks Fifth Avenue, there are bargains to be found.
Soft-goods discounts probably are the most prevalent, but there are plenty of deals in other departments, especially consumer electronics. It's already clear that 1984 will be the best year in the history of home tech; just how good depends on how many more people decide to put video recorders, television sets and personal stereos under their trees.
One of the main reasons the home entertainment business is so good is that the prices of techni-toys are falling faster than pine needles from a dried-out Christmas tree. The synergistic effects of mass production and mass marketing are relentlessly driving down prices.
A year ago, you had to hunt to find a 13-inch color TV for under $300; now you can see them for considerably less than $200. Video recorders dropped below $300 apiece a few months ago, ducked under $250 in the last few days and probably will be selling for $199 early next year, when a new wave of Korean imports hits port.
You can count on tremendous after-Christmas bargains this year, though that's not much consolation if you're shopping now.
One of the goals of the early promotional efforts is to try to draw out as many shoppers as possible as early as possible, relieving the last-minute pressure. Retailers know that during the four-day weekend just before Christmas, their stores will be running at about 110 percent of peak capacity. On days like that, sales can literally be limited by the length of the line at the cash register.
Reducing peak loads also is the goal of the early-morning and late-night promotions. Breakfast at Tiffany's may be more romantic than breakfast at Woodies, but Tiffany's doesn't have 8 a.m. doorbusters. Some stores practically will pay you to shop at that hour, and you're likely to get better service from clerks who have not yet been trampled by gift-givers.
Regardless of the reasons for all the early holiday promotion this year, one thing is clear: Retailers no longer can pretend that pre-Christmas markdowns are unusual.
Christmas gift ads used to stress cute presents rather than cut prices, but every year there are more and more sales. Consumers have come to count on pre-Christmas price cuts, and the stores are going to have to keep on giving them.
There's nothing better than big discounts to make shoppers strum their credit cards, but Christmas bargain hunting is not without its perils.
Some sale merchandise can't be returned if it is the wrong size or color. When it can be returned, the selection of alternatives may be slim. And there's always the risk of embarrassment when the givee finds out his or her present was purchased on sale.
There are shameless bargain hunters who will tell you without blushing that they found your gift for half price. They'll proudly point out that smart shopping allowed them to buy you a "better" present than would otherwise have been affordable.
But there are plenty of off-price prudes who would sooner die than have it be known they pinched pennies at Christmas.
For the full-price purists, we bargain hunters should be thankful; their generous use of the Gold Card makes it possible for the stores to give the rest of us good deals.
Perhaps the greatest peril of the pre-Christmas price cutting comes in that twilight zone between good deals and good taste. There's nothing quite as discouraging as knowing that the reason you got that ugly tie with the little green frogs on it is because it was on sale for 75 percent off. And you can't take it back.