A Survival Guide for Last-Minute Shoppers

Procrastinated? Don’t panic: Here’s how to complete your gift list in the nick of time.

Couple with Christmas presents, gifts and shopping bags in a mall in front of a Christmas tree
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"Last year, my best friend got his first iPad and complained about it never being in his hand when he wanted it, so it felt less than useful," says Adams, who bought his friend a case that comes with a strap, so his pal can carry it around wherever he goes.

A gift that improves a purchase your friend or family member already made is "mostly fail-proof," Adams says. This is especially true for gadgets.

• Go with useful. "Rather than struggle to find the perfect gift for someone, think practicality," suggests Claudia Lombana, a consumer expert who has been a spokesperson for several big-name brands, including eBay, PayPal and currently Wal-Mart.

"A new set of towels, for example, is something most anyone can use," Lombana says. "Who doesn't like nice, new towels?"

• Give an experience. This is a suggestion from Jessica Jessup, co-founder of Giftovus.com, a free social media site designed to help people find the perfect gift for a friend or family member.

[Read: 10 'Experience' Gifts That Keep on Giving.]

Jessup cites research from the University of Pennsylvania that found giftees feel a stronger connection to the giver if the gift provides an experience, like concert tickets or kayaking lessons. And if you think about it, it's the perfect gift for a last-minute purchase: You go to, say, the local yoga studio's website and buy some yoga sessions, print out the receipt and put it in a card.

Don't feel tied to your list. Instead, use your list as a guide.

"Go in with an open mind on what the giftee would like," says John Talbott, associate director of the Center for Education and Research in Retailing at Indiana University–Bloomington. That way, Talbott says, you're more likely to find something that's on sale and something your giftee will still like.

And look for deals, because they will be out there, Talbott says. In many stores, "an entire month of January doesn't have as much foot traffic as a week in December," he says. "So if you own a business and don't get inventory off the shelves, you're dead."

[See: 10 ways to Upgrade Your Finances in 2014.]

So there's no reason to kick yourself for waiting until the last minute to shop. You may feel stupid, but you're actually quite smart, as long as you haven't found yourself at a store, with its intercom blaring and lights flashing, and you still have a dozen or so gifts left to buy. In which case – what were you thinking?