For men on a mission, there's success — finding the perfect gift — there's failure (giving up and hitting the pub) and then there's the safe choice: The gift certificate. That's the button Orry Main pushed at Selfridges on Thursday when he couldn't make up his mind at London's chic Oxford Street shopping emporium.
"It's the easiest, they get what they want," said Main, who bought gift vouchers for his girlfriend and his sister. His friend, fellow construction worker Jamie Harvey, had been defeated by the six-floor department store, known for its extensive designer collections. He couldn't find anything, gave up and had a cigarette outside, gathering strength for one more shopping foray as the hours waned.
Britain is battered by economic woes, and the shopping season this year has been shortened by snowy weather that clogged traffic and delayed deliveries. So the final hopes of rescuing the retail season rest on last minute shoppers — predominantly men like Main and Harvey who are desperate to find a credible gift before it's finally too late.
This pressure is expected to bring record numbers of nervous, credit-card-toting consumers into Britain's malls and shops Thursday night as retailers forecast the most intense shopping binge of the year.
"There's a lot of pressure right now," said Kurt Williams, manager of Junky Styling, an environmentally friendly clothing store. "The weather has kept a lot of people away, and with Christmas and Boxing Day on a Saturday and Sunday, we're giving away those days, and we know that January is slow."
He is counting on male — not female — shoppers to help save the day.
"It is a phenomenon," he said. "Each year there's always the last minute sort of desperate kind of guy looking for that special gift without even the slightest clue what it might be. They don't know the height of their partner, or the size of their partner, and then they're embarrassed that they don't know."
Experts say that the next 24 hours should see the most intense shopping activity of the entire year, especially because so many people need to buy fresh food for their gala Christmas dinners. Demand has built up during the last five days as much of the country has been paralyzed by treacherous, icy roads.
"What we've got today is the peak," said Richard Dodd, spokesman for the British Retail Consortium. "There's a huge amount of catch-up shopping, much more than normal, shopping that they couldn't do last weekend or earlier this month because of the bad weather."
Even without the weather factor, he said there has been a strong trend in recent years for people to buy presents later in the Christmas season — but if they wait much longer, they'll be making red-faced apologies on Christmas morning.
This reality gave London's storied department stores a frenzied, do-or-die feel Thursday afternoon. Many shoppers looked fatigued and out of place as they considered the subtleties of various fragrances and the intricacies of women's clothes.
Men outnumbered women in the stores Thursday morning, and many seemed to be having trouble buying gifts for the women in their lives. Some frowned at the jewelry and watches lined up in glass cases, while many just wandered around the aisles of handbags and scarves looking slightly ill at ease.
There seemed to be safety in trusted names, like the Jo Malone skin care line, which seems to enjoy almost universal popularity among British women. A group of men gathered at the Jo Malone display, checking out box sets of candles and creams and surreptitiously looking at the price tags.
"I hate shopping," said Dave Tooley, 28, a market researcher from outside London who had made a special trip to find a clutch bag for his girlfriend. "Christmas shopping is my biggest fear. I've been putting it off, putting it off..."
At least he knew what he was after. His friend, Chris Boys, had no idea where to start.
"It's a case of scanning the aisles, see what's nice, I guess," he said.
A few braved the beauty department, gingerly picking up bottles of Chanel and Guerlain perfume and sniffing at them.
Not all male shoppers were bumbling. A few approached the mission with military precision.
"I've been shopping for a while now. I'm feeling very well prepared," said Wesley Harrison, a 30-year-old wealth manager who strolled out of the store confidently carrying a large shopping bag. He had bought his fiancee an expensive Marc Jacobs handbag he knew she was lusting after.
Any words for his fellow last-minute shoppers?
"Preparedness is key," he said.