It’s Easy to Go Postal Over Catalog Shopping

People sometimes tell me they’ve simplified their gift shopping by buying through mail-order catalogs. My experiences with this method have been fraught with complications.

How many times have you ordered something through the mail only to receive the wrong color? Or found that the size you meticulously calculated from those size charts was wrong? Or discovered, even though the size was correct, that it still didn’t fit right? Then you have to go through the hassle and expense of sending the thing back and starting all over. Or the item you order is out of stock, and by the time you get it, you’ve forgotten why you wanted it in the first place.

Several years ago, my friend Anne decided to eliminate the most time-consuming, frustrating part of her holidays--going to the malls to shop for gifts. So she arranged to do all her shopping by mail.

In early November, Anne borrowed a few catalogs from a friend and spent an evening selecting gifts for everyone on her list. She filled out the order forms, called the 800 numbers, and charged everything on her credit card. She paid the extra $3 or $4 for each item to be gift-wrapped and sent directly to the recipient.


But some time later, several of the catalog companies notified her that the items she ordered would not be available for Christmas delivery. She felt she had no choice but to rush to the mall to replace those gifts and didn’t avoid the crowds after all.

But the real shocker was yet to come. Nearly every week for the next year, Anne’s mailbox was crammed with catalogs--not only from the places she’d ordered gifts, but from dozens of others as well. Because she hadn’t asked them not to, the catalog companies sold her name to other catalog companies. It took her months to get her name off those lists.

Even if catalog shopping is easier for you, because you’re unable to shop on your own or don’t have the time, be aware of how seductive it is. Those four-color displays are so beguiling that you end up spending more than you planned. Some catalogs play mercilessly on our compulsion to buy or on our guilt, so it’s easy to order more than you need.

Selecting, wrapping and giving a gift is an intimate act. Catalog gifts are often impersonal. There’s nothing particularly intimate about dialing an 800 number to have 25 sterling-silver key chains factory-wrapped and sent to your nearest and dearest. And catalogs can easily encourage the same kind of consumer frenzy one feels in the mall.

Be on guard when the holiday catalogs start arriving.


(This column was adapted from Elaine St. James’ new book, “Simplify Your Christmas,” Andrews McMeel Publishing, available in bookstores now and at

Elaine St. James is the author of “Simplify Your Life” and “Simplify Your Life With Kids.” For questions or comments, write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111, or e-mail her at