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Personal shopper? I'll take a pass this year

The malls are abuzz in their seasonal glory - stores bustling, shoppers hustling, Santas bouncing hopeful children on their knees.

But this year, the scene isn't quite as exciting for Arianne Lim, a personal shopper who buys gifts for people who don't have the time (or the energy, or the nerves) to do it themselves.

The Toronto owner of Shop Til I Drop usually gets 10 to 15 new clients just for the Christmas holidays. This year, she's seen far fewer new faces, and some of her loyal clients have said they're taking a pass.

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"They would say they're a little bit tight on the budget and they're trying to save money," she says. "But they still want to buy something nice for their family and friends, so they'll go ahead and buy it themselves."

It's understandable, she says. Though the Conference Board of Canada reports a boost in consumer confidence, up 3.7 per cent in December after dipping the previous two months, the recession has made shoppers scrutinize their cash flow more carefully. For many, a personal shopper has been deemed an unnecessary luxury this year. They've seen everything from dropped clients to shortened wish lists to fewer shopping outings.

The dip in demand for a service that swaps time savings for cash reflects a bigger shift in the way Canadians are tackling their holiday shopping this year, says David Soberman, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management.

"People are looking for ways to save money, so they will actually spend time to go out to actual stores," he says.

A recent survey by market research firm The Nielsen Company saw the use of coupons boosted by 20 per cent from last year, a finding Prof. Soberman says reflects what's happening with personal shoppers.

Because of [the economy] people are a little bit less willing to spend the extra money or spoil themselves in the way they were before," he says.

They may also feel guilty about indulging in the service, he says, since the feeling of financial hardship still lingers in the air.

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"When you're in this situation, you have the natural result that people simply are looking for ways to save money. And with personal shoppers, you obviously pay a premium for that."

There are some who continue to pay that premium. Ms. Lim says many of her investment banker, executive and government employee clients are still on board for her services, which range from $75 a trip and delivery to $135 for two.

It's the busy families who have scaled back this year, and companies that have axed corporate gifts or decided to buy those presents themselves, she says.

This has been the most notable decline for Kristi Ferguson of Double You, a Vancouver-area personal shopping service, who typically buys gifts on behalf of a small to medium-sized businesses.

"One of the companies said their secretary was going to do it to save money on my time," she says. "While they might not have spent a whole lot less on the actual gifts, they didn't have to pay for personal shopping time."

The clients she still has are being far more particular, she says. They're asking her to skip the big-box stores and scope out local art fairs. Their lists are shorter, more precise, and there aren't constant addendums.

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"They're making more suggestions as to how money can be saved or where they've seen a deal," she says.

Shoppers are squeezing extra advice out of personal shoppers this year, as if wringing out every penny of their worth, says Angie Miller, director of Toronto's The Little Black Dress personal shoppers and image consultants, which charges $165 for a three-hour shopping trip.

"People have come to us with a budget, whereas before, we were the ones to raise that issue," she says, adding that demand for gift cards and experiential presents, such as a dinner out or rock-climbing lessons, has increased.

But there's also an upside to shopping for yourself.

Buying a gift on your own instead of hiring someone to do it can reconnect the shopper with the thrill of the hunt, says Sandra Phillips, a Montreal-based shopping expert. The dogged pursuit of the perfect present can be just as meaningful to a recipient as the gift, she says.

The Internet has also been a time-saver, allowing shoppers to scour for deals, plan their gift lists and head out on targeted, clock-busting shopping trips, she adds.

"There are so many sites out there that can give you advice about your toys, about your hot clothing accessories, what to get for a guy, that they can just peruse it and do it on a more logical level," Ms. Phillips says. "You're getting more advice, and that way you can choose from all of that advice and make a better choice."

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