Wisdom Comes Suddenly

How The Gifts War Was Won

December 19th, 2009 · No Comments


“How did you do it?  Where on earth did you get presents for these prices?”  I’d tell you, but then you’ll have to volunteer as Chairman for the 2010 Gifts Galore (and to the talented Susan who is Chairing…JUST KEEP SWIMMING, JUST KEEP SWIMMING…).  OK, I’ll spill, but only so Susan can have my notes on-line.  As I’ve said before, I followed in the footsteps (while carrying the notes) of a much wiser woman.  She has taught me the ropes, and if you are interested in taking your school’s shop to the next level, I’ll share with you how it’s done.

I’ll first soapbox for a moment and tell you about the greatest universal coupon that can be used at all stores, at all times, and that is kindness.  I know it sounds cheesy and maybe a little sales-y, but smiling and looking people in the eye will go a long way.  I’m not suggesting you use kindness to manipulate or to get things for free; nope, that’s not how graciousness works.  I’m talking about calling people by their name if the are wearing a nametag, and respectfully saying “Mr.” or “Ms.” if they are older than you are.  Ask people for help, and genuinely care how their day is going.  I once got 450 Target bags just because I let the manager vent about how the holiday bags were late in arriving.  I always ask if they’ve been crazy busy, if they’ve had a chance to have a break, etc., and then I care about their response.  Just yesterday Ms. Debbie at Kohl’s called every store in the city to find 3 heart shaped jewelry boxes that I knew were $30 on Amazon, not available for Super Saver Shipping, and on deep sale at Kohl’s.  Debbie called my cell at 11 pm to tell me where I could pick them up.  Not only did Debbie save me approximately $85, but her manager got a long letter from me on the amazingness of Ms. Debbie, and how her extra mile will bring joy to Kelly, Sara, and Miss Avery on Christmas Eve.  All 3 have begged for pink ballerina jewelry boxes, and all 3 are getting them, even in a year when their parents are strapped by the Recession.  Some of those Kohls Service Ladies remembered me from a year ago when they helped me start the Gifts Galore shopping, and aren’t I glad they remembered me fondly?

My Dad always taught me to be humbled by the amazing fortune of our lives.  He’s not Christian, but if he were, he’d refer to the overwhelming blessings that befall us.  You don’t have to look far to see people who have it tougher, work harder for less, and spend their lives in bad jobs with bad pay and bad shifts.  I know a lot of people would say those people have made bad choices and that’s why they didn’t go to college or end up in a mansion, etc., blah, blah.  I’ll tell you that’s complete and total bullshit.  I said it…bullshit.  God calls us to different places in life, and many people, even after trying their best, are simply doing the best they can with what they have.  Anyone who says their good fortune wasn’t due to just a little bit of luck is only fooling themselves.

Now, onto the hardcore knowledge that I will drop to you in the most organized fashion I can:

Decorations and Storage:

If you don’t have lights, it’s an upfront investment.  Everything else in our shop was inherited by fancy chain bookstores at the end of their holiday seasons.  Look around you: Barnes and Noble, Borders, Wal-Mart, Target….all ridiculously decorated this year with very large displays that they will probably throw away.  If they have a policy that they don’t “give” them away, a manager might “hint” to you when they will be hitting the dumpsters.  Don’t think of it as dumpster diving, think of it as saving the landfills.

These gifts need to be stored, and in an organized way.  We use really nice moving boxes with lids, and label them with the category, “Mens, Womens, Boys, Pets, etc”, and then with the Number “1, 2, 3, or 4”.  We restock at 25% intervals, and always have the next restocking set right under the table where those gifts will go.  I can cleanly stock 1000 gifts in about 45 minutes using this method.  The boxes are hard to get, I won’t lie.  Many came from Staples, where they receive their stock in boxes such as these.  I won’t name names, but prior chairpersons actually stocked the shelves at Staples one late Saturday night in order to garner the date and time the boxes hit the dumpster, as it is that store’s policy not to give them away.  Some store policies defy ALL LOGIC.  Menards is much kinder and their store is stocked with large grey dumpsters on wheels where their stockers dump their boxes as they go.  They have no issue with customers taking those boxes…and trust me, they know me by name.

The fireplace is a critical stuffed animal holder, even though it’s entirely made of cardboard.  Whenever one dies, we go to a local grocery store and ask to speak to their Keebler rep.  Every holiday season Keebler stocks every grocery store with a new cardboard cracker display that sits in the aisles.  We’ve usually inherited a new one that was never opened because they have so many.  It will be covered in pictures of Keebler elves and pop out pictures of holiday crackers, until you cover it with paint.  For the cost of a little paint, you have yourself a fabulous kid-sy holiday shelving unit.

Make sure your school has a dedicated space for this mess of stuff.  It took months for us to catalog, price, and pack the merchandise, but once we did, we have a locked place to keep it at the school.

The big blue trees were made out of cardboard that I dug out of my neighbor’s trash on garbage day.  They apparently bought a new hot water heater, and shazamm, if that wasn’t my lucky day.  The paper was bought with a coupon at Hobby Lobby, and the snowflakes came from the dollar store.  The three trees probably cost less than $20.  If you see me digging through your trash, I’m not starving; I’m DECORATING.

Getting these prices:

It should be noted that half of our inventory is purchased on December 26th, almost one year in advance of the actual event.   It’s a crazy long day that requires a large minivan, helpers, and a schedule, along with coupons.  An important component to good merchandise is “time”.  Our school’s Chairperson usually shops on average for 13 months to buy around 3700 items that are purchased and sold for $5 or less.  Having time to find these deals means we never have to settle for “junk”.  It also allows us time to stalk clearance aisles, and hit every Target in the city while collecting multiples of one great item (i.e. huge Dreidel shaped cookie jars).

KOHL’S: Kohl’s prices are better BEFORE Christmas.  I don’t believe in using store credit cards, but you’ll have to have a Kohl’s card.  A few times a year, they’ll have a trifecta week (my name for it): toys are on sale, they have a scratch off coupon in the store for credit card holders, and for credit card purchases, you get a free $10 to spend for every $50 you spend.  Ms. Bernice at Customer Service and I agree, it’s OK in this instance to pray for coupons, especially 30% scratch offs.  I have a team of friends who use their cards to get scratch offs for me, because every store only has a couple 30% ones.  So, for example, take a really nice $12 Hotwheel pack of 5 fancy cars.  It’s on sale for 40% off, plus, you have a 30% coupon.  That $12 toy is now $5.04.  Maybe it’s the night you opened the charge, adding an additional 15% off (no joke, they’ll let you do it, especially if you tell them you are doing it for a school).  That truly great $12 toy is now $4.28.  Be sure you buy 24 of them, because sets of Hotwheels are HOT at a Santa Shop.  You are buying for a school, so you don’t pay tax.  At the same time, the Playskool toys are 55% off, plus an additional 30%, making those toys 85% off.  85% off of branded toys…that’s a bargain.  You’ll buy some holiday towels that are 60% off before Christmas, also using your 30% off coupon, and thereby buying holiday towels at 90% off.  Let’s say your total bill that night is around $300.00.  That’s $60 in free Kohl’s bucks that can be used at a later date.  Totally FREE money.  You’ll use that money to buy things that will NEVER be under $5: Colts hats, Colts reusable water bottles, hand held Guitar Hero games, Star Wars Light Sabers…and there you have what we call our “WOW” presents.  Not donated, not stolen, bought fair and square and within our budget.

JOANN FABRICS: Jo Ann Fabrics also has better prices before Christmas on their Christmas “stuff”.  I like to buy the jumbo coffee mugs at Joann’s, but keep in mind their mugs and candles are far too picked over after Christmas.  The key to Santa Shopping is buying in BULK.  1 item at 80% doesn’t do me a whole lot of good; I need 16 of that item at 80%.

WALGREENS: Here’s possibly the greatest secret I’ve used: Walgreen’s sells great toys.  This time of year they have a multiple deal; it’s either buy 3 at $6 and get the 4th for free (making each toy $4.50), or something very similar.  No worries on the fact that you have to buy in multiples, because you are buying 60 basketballs.  They have ESPN themed footballs, basketballs, soccer balls.  Disney Princesses, Pet Shop Toys, My Pretty Pony sets, remote control helicopters, train sets, building sets, microphones, robots, dress up sets, and so many branded toys your head will spin.  It’s all tucked into one aisle, and when the manager finds out you are buying in bulk, he’ll probably grab a cart and make you some deals.  Walgreen’s isn’t in the business of selling toys, so when Christmas is over, he wants that stuff out of there.  That’s where I got the blow up chairs, the Hannah Montana camping chairs, and all those sports balls.  The balls have to be bought before Christmas because they will be gone after.

TARGET: Target is the Santa Shoppers conundrum.  Every single Target is different, with somewhat different stock, and somewhat different policies.  A Converse men’s scarf might be $10 at one Target, and on clearance at another Target for $3, just down the road.  But you can’t live without those red stickers.  Why?  Because they are often wrong.  That clearance price might suggest a 75% clearance price, but when you scan it, it’s actually 80% off.  Target does that on purpose, but whatever, just memorize where those scanners are located.  Sara will tell you that Elmo’s are never on sale, but we should scan them anyway, just to be sure.  They clearance toys in January and in July, and then a small amount goes on clearance on weekly on Wednesday nights and Thursday mornings.  You have to look all over the store on Thursday mornings for the red stickers, because they are truly scattered, but that’s how I found 4 Eddie Bauer Weather Monitors marked down from $30 to $5.  I had to go to 4 different Targets to get all of the Lacrosse stick sets.  And here’s the deal on the Men’s gifts: you must, must, must get the red boxes.  We buy upwards of 250 of them the day after Christmas.  For 2010, the Chairman will shoot for 400.  You have to be in the Target parking lot 15 minutes before they open on December 26th, and at the door with helpers and at least 4 carts the second they open at 7 am.  Head for the Christmas section.  It’s helpful to either A) have multiple shoppers stationed at multiple Targets or B) preshop on Christmas Eve to know which Targets have the most in stock.  Then RUN.  By 10 am, every single one of those red boxes will be gone.  Just start swooping them into your cart, you can count them later.  They will 50% off, so anything originally $10 or less goes in the cart.  People will stare.  People will ask.  Just keep scooping.  And then figure out which Target in your city is getting the roll over stock.  That’s right: they move clearance stock in between stores.  Last year Zionsville got the red boxes.  The year before, it was Fishers.  You can get a few extra at 75% around the city over the course of the next few days…but just a few.  I’ve never gotten a manager to admit to this, but I’ve hit enough stores and talked to enough stock boys to get the inside scoop.

WALMART: Wal-Mart has a clearance aisle, usually in a very undershopped part of the store.  It’s messy, but after Christmas, stalk it like a bad ex-boyfriend.  Those prices drop every week.  That’s how I got Seinfeld Scene It games that started out at $30, for $5 a game.  Wal-Mart Holiday jewelry box sets are usually quite nice (remember, you are shopping like a kid, not an adult) and they have a lot of stock.  Their bath sets go on deep discount the day after Christmas and don’t sell out as quickly as Target’s.  Their socks are totally cute and go on deep discount quickly.  Wal-Mart is where I landed 40 overstuffed animals for $5 a pop, even though they were listed for $20.  Drugstores, grocery stores, big stores…they all carry those awful things at the holidays, because kids think they are amazing.  Most managers will make you a deal in that last week of December, just to get rid of them.  They have to make room for the hideous Valentine’s junk.  Wal-Marts clearance aisle exists year ’round, and some are better than others, which leads me to a big hint:

SECRET STORES: Everyone knows I have a Secret Target, a Secret Wal-Mart, about 10 Secret Wal-Greens, and even a Secret Kohl’s.  They are the undershopped big boxes.  Look at a map of your city.  Look for big boxes on a perimeter of a downtown, one that hasn’t turned into a “super” yet (Super Target, Super Wal-Mart), look for one that is maybe in an economically depressed area.  They will have the same hot stock as the fancy stores in the fancy areas, but will have MORE OF IT, because it is undershopped.  My Secret Target closed last January, and I had to replace it with my old Target at Washington Square Mall.  It was dark.  It was scary.  It had electronic dartboards for $3.50.  That being said, I got wonderful merchandise at the Zionsville Target, arguably the most affluent Target in Indy.  Everyone there is pleasant and every shopping experience there has been superlative.  Catering to the ultra-wealthy has its perks, I suppose.  I also shop the Zionsville Walgreens and the Zionsville grocery stores.  They are generous and helpful.  Go to the really, really nice areas, not the suburbs I call, “Keepin’ up with the Jones'” neighborhoods.  People who want to keep up with the Jones have to do a lot of shopping to…um….keep up.  Their stores are well-stocked, but overshopped at the holidays. I go out of my way to tell managers that they are my secret stores, that their stores are lovely, clean and well-kept (which they often are…try the Walgreen’s in downtown Indy on Meridian….you will be pleasantly surprised and tell Brequelyn and Tisha I sent you).  They know they are undershopped.  They know they are underappreciated.  Go ahead and make their day!

DOLLAR STORES: Rollover stores: these are stores that take the surplus inventory from department stores.  They don’t advertise it…you just have to look.  Many people might pass what they think is a dollar store, that is actually a $5 and under store.  Those stores ROCK.  $5 and under stores in my area get everything from pink and brown toile pet beds to fancy pens to digital cameras on keychains.  You’ll have to browse.  You’ll have to hunt.  You’ll have to look at a ton of JUNK you’d never, ever buy.  And I don’t care how desperate you are!  Stick to your Santa Shop Mantra: WE DON’T SELL JUNK AT OUR SANTA SHOP.  But the day you find 25 digital cameras on a rounder near the cash register, it will make it worth the time.  Their toys aren’t great, so I don’t recommend it.  They ARE in the business of selling toys, so you’ll only get deals on things they are trying to move.

WAREHOUSE AND DEEP DISCOUNT: Don’t be afraid to browse the deep discount stores in your area.  Those amazing stuffed animals came from The Flower Factory.  Some of the really cute home stuff came from Old Time Pottery.  Hobby Lobby is another good place for holiday themed stuff.  Party stores sell better Hanukkah gifts.  In order to average out to $2.30 per gift, you’ll have to get a lot of stuff for around a buck.  You’ll need to hit deep discount stores and be super choosy about what you buy.

AMAZON: I did some on-line shopping when shipping was free.  Amazon has several deals going every day.  Those are hard to get, but I landed a few.  And THAT’S how you painfully, one at a time, get Webkinz.  Small sellers might be trying to off-load the small hot toy, and maybe they have TWO.  Or three.  And I needed like…30.  It was a slow and painful walk to getting 30 Webkinz for around the $5 mark each, but I did it.  And every single one of them sold like hotcakes.  Every year as a hot toy that can be found if you look hard enough (it won’t be on sale at Toys R Us, I can you tell you that…DO NOT GO TO THAT STORE EVER, unless you like pain).

UGH, THE MALL: There is only one reason to go to the Mall: Claire’s.  8 year old girls like Claires, and they clearance at 75% after Christmas, as does their sister store, The Icing.  I think the managers at both those stores hugged me last year.  I asked a lot of 8 year old girls for their advice while shopping!  Nearly every item I bought at both of those stores sold.  They have bright packaging and they know how to market to elementary and middle school aged girls.  Other than those stores, the mall is a big, fat, gigantic waste of time.  There are no real sales at the Mall.  I will say that last year during the onset of the Recession, Yankee Candle got really, really desperate and sold me their entire stock of tiny holiday themed candles for around the $3 mark.  But they were desperate, and I’ve already noticed that JCPenney, Yankee, etc, have 1/4th of the stock they had last year.  The mall stores don’t do multiple discounting (and neither does JoAnn’s damnit).  Basically, if it’s on sale, you can’t use a coupon as well.  I miss L.S. Ayres!!!  Macy’s has enough restrictions on their coupons that I wonder why they print them at all.  I did get the Tinkerbell dolls at the Disney Store, but again…the Recession hit hard right around Christmas, and they were desperate.  Disney is worth browsing if you can figure out their clearance times (not the sales in the back of the store…but the nights when a big display goes on deep discount for just a couple of days to make room for new merchandise).  You’ll have to beg a manager for that kind of intel.

HARDWARE: Menards sells camping chairs for $5 each in the very late summer, early fall.  You have to watch for that sale like a hawk, and go that day.  You’ll sell as many as you can buy.  You can usually find the chairs without arms on sale for $5, the nice chairs with arms?  You have to really look for that sale.

PETS AND CANDY: The pet stuff must be bought at the $5 and under store or it will break the bank.  The candy is bought on a rollback, and then marked down.  The kids go WILD for those 1/2 lb candy bars.  I paid $1.50 for them, but had enough money in my budget to mark those down.  Everything I bought had to be rounded up to the next quarter amount to pay for wrapping paper, tape, gift bags, tissue paper, etc…so that gives a little wiggle room for making candy a fun price.  The kids know that you can’t buy oversized Hershey kisses for $1.50 anywhere, anytime, for any reason.  I found them on sale for $3, and marked them down.  It creates mass hysteria at the candy section.

DOLLAR ITEMS: Ways to get less expensive items that aren’t junk: buy packs of really cute things and break them up.  Pretty glass snowflake candle holders that came in packs of 4 of Target, I was able to break up and sell for $1 each.  Kooky pens?  Yeah, like those ever go on sale!  Bed Bath and Beyond sells them in sets at the holidays for $20 for a themed set of 5 pens.  Wait for that to go half off…voila, you just got a Kooky pen for $2, normally $3.75 at every check out in America.  I bought beautiful desk photo holders in sets and broke them up; I’ve broken up and re-tied kitchen towel sets…all ways to get nice items for around the $1 mark.

Just as as fyi: kids like to buy candles, snowglobes, Santa hats (especially college and NFL themed), stuffed animals, coffee mugs, fleece throws, anything over-sized, anything that turns on, things that are sparkly, and of course, glittery.  I can hear my sister right now: “so it wasn’t too big of a stretch for Lori to shop like a kid…”.  True ‘dat baby.  The tiny snowglobes are from Old Time Pottery and all 40 of them sold very quickly.

BOOKS: Our book section for Moms and Dads sold well, but less so for kids.  Kids have books, but when they saw “Nicholas Sparks” and “Michael Connelly”, they recognized those authors as read by their parents.  The truth behind the books: a certain publisher in Indiana sells all over its “overprints” one day a year for $1 a book.  They simply have too many, and often too many of a huge best sellers: Twilight Movie Guides, The Shack, Williams Sonoma Cookbooks, etc.  We get in line at an AWFUL hour of the morning (no kids allowed, as it is a working warehouse), and the boxes are provided.  We buy books of off large pallets, and they have literally thousands of books, and probably hundreds of titles.  There is no limit, and it’s cash only.  Shoppers are let in as groups of 20, and the line snakes through the warehouse for probably a half a mile.  We buy birthday presents, and books for us, and books for the kids, and this last June: 250 books for Gifts Galore.  The book that featured Dogs in Costumes (“Indognito”)…I should have tripled that purchase.  Apparently kids like pets in costume.  Same goes for the Jumbo Sudoku box sets…wow, those were a hit.

Other specific items our kids like: mens themed boxer shorts, all bought at Kohls.  The chopsticks were a fun addition this year, and I bought them in gift sets on-line after the Chinese New Year (on clearance).  Gross cushy squeezy balls are big with kids, but I call them the Germ Catchers.  I was taught (and grateful I paid attention) that 5th grade boys like gross things.  I kept the book “The Scoop on Poop” set aside until the 5th graders shopped.   Prior chairman have set aside Whoopie Cushions.  Pull them out for those 5th grade boys, and they go crazy with excitement.

Wrapping Paper, etc:

It’s tempting to buy wrapping paper and bows and sticky gift tags at 50% off.  It’s hard not to buy it, but there is a lot of it.  A LOT.  Every year, no fail, A LOT.  So on December 30th, in the early evening, most stores go to 75% off.  Target, Walgreens, etc.  That night is already marked on my calendar.  That’s the night we buy 50 rolls of wrapping paper, 2000 gift tags, 1800 sheets of wrapping paper, and 800 bows.

Curling ribbon and gift bags are bought from a warehouse distributor that’s been doing business in Indy for like 100 years.  Seriously, family owned, downtown, forever.  Cash and Carry, and they are some of the nicest guys in the city.  500 feet of curling ribbon will run you about $3.  I bought 1500 paper bags for about $40, and then got a great set of volunteers to help me sponge paint them in the Science Room.  It took us a month of Wednesdays to do it, but it saved us hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  We have 40 minutes per class for our kids to shop, pay for their gifts, and get them all gift wrapped.  Putting things in bags and tying them up with curling ribbon saves us time and saves the bank.

And that, in a nutshell, is the Information Superhighway on how to shop and decorate for a Santa Shop.  There are about 2000 other details, but those are dull.  Get the volunteers, print 4000 pricing stickers, manage the database of gifts, cut 1500 yards of curling ribbon, serve great snacks. Beg your husband for help until you owe him so much that you’ll have to be married to him for 3 lifetimes to pay him back, knowing he’d never marry you again if he knew you’d chair Santa Shop.

Will I be out at 5 am this December 26th?  Maybe: if there is a gigantic after Christmas sale combined with an early bird special where they’ll let me use my $10 off coupon if I spend $25 or more….

Tags: The Girls