Finding holiday spirit in brick-and-mortar stores

NEW YORK (AP) ? The crowds, congestion, heavy bags and “Jingle Bells” for the umpteenth time are all unavoidable parts of the holiday experience if you do your shopping in the old-school, brick-and-mortar way.

And they’re part of the fun, too. I really don’t know how I’d get into the season’s full spirit otherwise.

I like my holiday season, and especially my shopping, to be hustling and bustling. I like finding unexpected treasures that will make the perfect gifts, swapping sale info with strangers, waiting in a long line for (worth-it) peppermint hot cocoa and generally juggling more things I can handle.

If I emerge from a store in seemingly sudden darkness after entering in broad daylight, so be it. I’m not even above holding bags with my teeth as I struggle to pull on my gloves to combat the inevitable chill. Maybe there’ll be snowflakes, and I’ll have to use those gloves to dust the windshield of my car.

A successful day would leave “Silver Bells” stuck in my head by the time I’m ready to head home.

Yes, I really am a fan of so many stereotypical trappings of holiday shopping. I’m not looking for a month full of easy answers or quiet nights. That’s what January is for.

I’m not the only elf who feels that way.

“I thrive on the energy,” says Joe Zee, Elle magazine’s creative director. “I like shopping as an event. There’s nothing wrong with online shopping ? it’s a time-saver, you can delegate, you can do it last-minute, but it lacks the emotional, human experience of holiday shopping.”

Like Zee, I’m not a technophobe who shuns online shopping. I order jeans this way, once I know my size and brand; I bought my daughter’s Uggs from Zappos and I’ll probably order an e-reader tablet for someone near and dear this season.

But would I have bought silver mittens for a close friend last year if I hadn’t felt firsthand that heavenly lining? Probably not. And my husband has thoroughly enjoyed a book about the Arctic that jumped out at me in the store but probably wouldn’t have been in my online “recommended reading” based on previous purchases.

My mother-in-law wouldn’t have that folk-art cat lamp in her hallway if I hadn’t seen it in the right setting of a quaint New England village. It genuinely suits her, but I’m not sure I would have realized that from a laptop screen flashing “Free Shipping!”

Christa Marzan, 24, of Princeton, N.J., didn’t plan to give her mother and sister jewelry last year as gifts. But a store’s festive display enticed her.

Marzan says she likes to do “online window shopping,” but “I have a hard time deciding if I’m going to like it if I can’t touch it.'”

Kaitlyn Pierce, who lives near Pittsfield, Mass., takes her time in stores, often on Black Friday, to browse. “Stores have the holiday displays, and it puts me in the mood to buy things for other people and not myself,” said Pierce, 24, who adds that she has no problem buying her own shoes and other fashion accessories from favorite websites.

According to market research firm NPD, general traffic at brick-and-mortar retailers was down the first three weeks of November, but mostly due to lower sales at grocery and mass chains. Beauty specialty stores, electronic stores, factory outlets, sporting goods stores and toy stores ? gift stores ? reported an increase. Those same types of stores also showed a 12.8 percent rise in online buying visits, NPD said.

Palmer Trading Company, a boutique specializing in Americana, has been open for over a year in Manhattan’s SoHo, but it doesn’t have an online store yet. “It makes you come in to the store,” says co-owner David Ramirez. “We do phone sales and have a blog to explain what we’re all about, but I like that you have to come in and hear our stories about how we found our vendors, decorated the store.”

Fashioned after a New England cabin oasis, Palmer will be all decked out for the holidays, hoping to transport customers for a few minutes to that ski vacation that might be on top of their wish list.

The shop plans to serve apple pie and warm cider brought back from Massachusetts by Ramirez after Thanksgiving there at his parents’ home. It’s part of Small Business Saturday, the neighborhood alternative to Black Friday that emphasizes experience over price.

Elle’s Zee, also star of Sundance Channel’s “All On the Line,” a reality show about fashion businesses, says exciting visuals and fun are two gifts stores can give to shoppers.

“I don’t see holiday shopping as a chore,” he says. “I’m a gift person ? I love giving gifts and I love personalizing gifts for everyone else. … Online gifts never cross your hands. They go from cyberspace to the doorstep of the recipient. I think a gift needs that personal touch.” Even when he orders online, he has items shipped to himself, not the recipient, so he can personally “put it in something other than the brown box.”

Packaging is a big part of holiday shopping for me as well. I love the refinement of those heavy-stock bags upscale retailers give out. Walking by Tiffany & Co. this time of year, its signature blue bags stand out on busy Fifth Avenue, and you can imagine the happy recipient at the other end.

If a store wraps packages, I know their bows will come out better than mine. But then there’ll be the one night when I lay out all the wrapping paper I’ve bought ? goofy Santa dogs, sophisticated stripes and Hanukkah menorahs ? and I’ll go to work making my own curlicue ribbons and filling out gift tags.

It’s a satisfying feeling when the stack is complete, and I can’t wait to give them out. Holiday shopping is always a whirlwind, and I’ll savor the downtime to come, but sign me up again next year.