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HOLIDAYS : Shopping by the Book : More people are relying on catalogues as a convenient and time-saving way to make their gift purchases.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to The Times

For some, it’s not a full parking lot at the mall that causes shopping stress, but the busy signal on an 800 telephone order line for a favorite catalogue.

A growing number of Americans are turning to catalogues to buy their holiday gifts. As of last year, more than 8,000 catalogue companies issued 12 billion catalogues, with more than $55 billion in total sales. This year, the industry expects a 7% increase in sales. While the cost of the products--especially after including sometimes hefty shipping and handling fees--may not make catalogue shopping a bargain, for many it means convenience, safety and time saved.

Nancy La Sota of Agoura Hills has loved shopping by catalogue since childhood, when she and her brother would comb through the giant Sears catalogue, folding down pages to designate their must-haves. Now, catalogues are La Sota’s primary source for gift-buying, especially for items produced by museums and gardening merchandisers.

“It’s a safe way to shop because you don’t have to act immediately,” said La Sota, who will study any catalogue that comes in the mail. “You can do comparison shopping between catalogues and keep coming back to the item before deciding to buy.”

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La Sota, 42, said she finds catalogue shopping can expand her options, especially for such specialty items as bird feeders or jewelry. And when she comes home after a day at work, she appreciates the fact that catalogue ordering phone lines are often open long after local stores are closed.

Norma Pereira, 72, of North Hollywood is a seasoned catalogue shopper who especially likes to order several months before Christmas. She said she dislikes shopping because of the crowds and lines and appreciates catalogues because they provide a wide range of ideas. She also finds catalogues provide her with a sense of complacency. After reviewing a haul of the season’s catalogues, she feels confident she knows the available range of merchandise as well. “I like knowing what my options are,” she said.

Pat Michiels, 60, of Agoura considers herself only an occasional catalogue user. Every year, she orders five fruitcakes from a Texas mail-order bakery, usually sending in the order early in November to ensure prompt delivery. But Michiels said the convenience is not always worth the effort because the cost and hassle of returning merchandise that does not fit or misses the mark can be high.

La Sota remembers the time the delivery person literally threw a package over her front gate and she heard the sound of a new china dinosaur cookie jar breaking. It was slated to be a gift for her then-sister-in-law, and returning the merchandise and getting a replacement--paid for by the mail-order company--in time for the holiday involved an inordinate amount of work.

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Pereira avoids catalogue items for friends and relatives who she knows are most likely to return things. For them, she shops at local stores that will wrap the gifts so their point of purchase is easily identifiable.

For Pereira, the biggest down side of becoming a confirmed catalogue shopper is the junk mail, which can be considerable because catalogue companies often sell names to others interested in potential buyers, she said.

Pereira has discovered another negative about catalogue shopping. In reviewing her stack of catalogues for last-minute shopping, she noticed an especially delicious-looking box of chocolates, a gift she has decided to order for herself.

Mail-Order Advice

Frequent catalogue shoppers offer this advice when buying mail-order gifts:

* Check the catalogue to see if there is a deadline for ordering to ensure delivery by Christmas. Some catalogues offer free or low-cost express delivery for last-minute orders.

* Try to order when the company’s computers are up and running, so order takers can ensure the availability of merchandise and the expected date of delivery.

* Note the company’s mailing charges for the total amount you spend.

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* Ask catalogue merchandisers if they provide free gift wrapping or boxes. If buying more than one item from a company that will wrap the gifts, ask them to surreptitiously note the contents of the packages to help avoid surprises.

* Consider having the companies send gifts directly to friends and family out of the area to minimize shipping costs. If you are traveling by air, have gifts shipped to the home where the celebration will occur so you won’t have to lug the presents along.


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