First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt consults Santa Claus at a Washington D.C. toy store where she is Christmas shopping for her grandchildren. (Photo courtesy of Carl Anthony)

Five shopping days until Christmas — but no obvious sign of Michelle Obama hitting the stores, and only one outing for the president and his daughters to a Virginia bookstore last month.

Which got us wondering: How do first families pull off their holiday shopping? We know they exchange gifts, but how exactly do they find and buy those presents?

President Barack Obama, with daughters Sasha, left, and Malia, right, goes shopping at a small bookstore, in Arlington, Va. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/AP)

“Preparation,” a smiling Obama told the owner of One More Page in Arlington in November while thumbing his BlackBerry. “That’s how I shop. Michelle, she can go wandering around forever. I like knowing what I’m coming in here for.” The White House said the president bought 15 children’s books there for family members.

If the first lady is, in fact, “wandering around,” she’s doing it unrecognized — just like her stealth trip to Target last year. Otherwise, she may have borrowed a few shopping tricks from her predecessors.

Nancy Reagan recruited staff to buy a selection of gifts and bring them back to the White House for her final selection. Hillary Clinton did her Christmas shopping year-round, usually during her world travels. Eleanor Roosevelt did the same but also made an annual shopping trip — reporters and photographers in tow — to promote local stores during the Depression.

Back in the day, most president’s wives could shop anonymously. “It’s the security force that attracted the attention,” said historian Carl Anthony . “In earlier days — pre-Kennedy assassination — the first lady was able to have the Secret Service hang back.” Grace Coolidge window-shopped on F Street accompanied by just one agent. Bess Truman could wander through stores and even drive to them herself for her first six months in the White House; no one even spotted her Christmas shopping until the time her more famous daughter Margaret joined her. Even Jackie Kennedy went unrecognized by clerks or other customers, Anthony told us, by going to stores in the D.C. suburbs where she blended in with other upscale housewives.

U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999 shopping on the internet for the first time for family Christmas presents. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

Those days, of course, are long gone. Pat and Julie Nixon were overwhelmed after reporters were tipped off to a shopping trip at Sears, and the era of private presidential shopping was pretty much over. Almost every public Christmas shopping trip became an orchestrated photo op: Bill Clinton making last-minute Christmas Eve runs until 1999, when photographers watched him order presents on the Internet for the very first time.

Bricks and mortar still get love: Obama and Bo created a sensation last year at the Alexandria PetSmart and Best Buy. (Their haul included a doggie bone and a Wii “Just Dance” game for his girls.)

This year? The White House declined to shed any light on the Obama family shopping strategy because it’s a “private activity.”

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