I'm not one of those serious shoppers who puts on their running shoes, downs a highly caffeinated beverage for extra energy, waits outside the mall until it opens, and glares at anyone ahead of me in line. Sure, I love a bargain, but the difference between the professional shoppers and me is I refuse to beat other customers over the head with my tote bag if we both grab for the same dress. When I go shopping, I try to avoid looking for specific items because if I need a snow jacket for the upcoming ski trip, more likely than not, every store in North County will not carry a heavy enough coat or the coats will be sold out or only an extra extra large will be left on the rack or the shipment of jackets will have ended up in the Bahamas. On such occasions, when I return home without a bag in tow, the family knows to hightail it for a different room and refrain from asking, "So, did you find what you needed?" for at least 24 hours.

Perhaps my most discouraging shopping experience occurred last May, when I went out in search of the perfect pair of shoes to wear with my prom dress. I walked into a classy shoe store and asked the saleslady to please bring me the silver heel in a size five and a half, to which she replied they do not carry shoes that small; I heard the same story from other shops as well. After several hours of looking, at which point I wanted to pull out my hair and scream, I found the most gorgeous pair of shoes in my size and bought them immediately, even though they cost as much as my dress.

I love shopping -- don't get me wrong -- but for the sake of my sanity, I refrain from entering the mall on a regular basis. -- Emma Seemann, Carlsbad H.S.

My brother is 22 years old. I am 18. And we are avid procrastinators. For example: Christmas. Christmas is on the 25th of December (always has been) but my brother and I forget and are forced to go shopping within hours of the holiday. This leads to problems. One of those problems is traffic.

Parkway Plaza mall in El Cajon is an excellent place to shop for gifts. Unfortunately, my brother and I aren't the only ones holding this little piece of wisdom. So, while some celebrate by hanging stockings, my brother and I squeeze into my teal Camaro and find cramped places to park it. The parking lot becomes a holiday horror show. When we finally find a spot, it's so far from the mall we have to use MapQuest to find our way back.

This is when the fun begins. We're not especially athletic, but I believe if every shopper were given a number to wear, then my brother and I would be considered the champions of the Christmas Shopathalon.

Moving through a mall during Christmas time is our specialty; not because of our chronic lack of preparation but because we really do care. My brother and I find pleasure in getting the perfect gifts for our relatives. Together we set off to numerous stores. JCPenney and Sears become second homes as we strive to find something special. Flipping through clothes racks and shuffling through bins. Checking one store and then checking another. Asking questions. It's what we're good at. And somewhere in the jungle of greedy shoppers and greedier store owners, there is a smidge of the Christmas spirit that appears now and then. It's somewhere between children taking pictures with Santa and the "Roll Back" prices at Wal-Mart. But it's there. And my brother and I get to share it while resting in the food court.

In the midst of the holiday rush, it's easy to curse and complain about an unhelpful cashier. But when it's over, only the gifts and all of the thought and effort and good will that went into them remain. -- Andres Perez, Valhalla H.S.

I find that the holiday season can sometimes bring out the most impatient, stubborn, and, at times, reckless side of people. To make sure my emotions did not compel me to clash with someone over taking the last medium-size jacket or purchasing the video game I had been searching for for my brother, I found my mom to be a perfect companion for these intense outings. I enjoy the calmer part of the holidays: wrapping gifts with multi-colored paper and ribbons, decorating the tree with ornaments, and visiting a nearby street full of holiday-light displays. The shopping for the gifts tends to be a hassle. The most frustrating part of finding a gift is making sure you retrieve the right size in clothing or the right version of a particular video game or film.

To make sure our energy remains high throughout the six-hour shopping spree, my mom and I leave the house wearing comfortable walking shoes, of course, and then order two ice-blended mochas from the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.

The mall I believe to be the best suited for Christmas shopping is Fashion Valley because it is larger and seems to convey the spirit better than the others. My least favorite mall is Grossmont Center because the population of shoppers there is nearly nonexistent, and the choices of stores is limited.

Even though my family seemed pleasantly surprised with their presents this year, many of them were nearly impossible to find, such as my brother's "Bruce Lee: Quest of the Dragon" video game. I informed each of my parents separately on what I bought for the other, and they asked for suggestions as to what to buy for the other. I did not set a budget for the gift shopping this year, but I would say that all the money spent seemed worth it on Christmas morning. -- Nichole Naoum, West Hills H.S.

As my family and I stepped out of the car into the Wal-Mart parking lot on Friday, we were dumbfounded. See, this wasn't your average Friday; this was the notorious day after Thanksgiving. It was five o'clock in the morning, and I was half awake, yet even through heavy eyelids I could see the line of people that extended past the front door of Wal-Mart. The line wrapped around the store, past Mervyn's, and down the street. Restless, I told my family that the line was too long and that I would be in Mervyn's if they wanted me. I must've been pretty convincing because immediately thereafter they followed. Ever since I became capable of making my own money, I've bought holiday gifts for immediate family members and close friends. So, to get the most bang out of my buck, I always carefully follow every line of text in the ads for day-after-Thanksgiving sales. I love giving gifts; the problem is, I don't always have enough money to get everybody something. Outlet malls help out a little when it comes to crunch time. They have bigger sales than the malls and have them more often. In addition, the stores cater to my family and friends, who fall into two vastly different age categories. But, even the outlet malls have some of the same problems as the regular ones: long lines, minimal staff, large crowds, and rowdy small children weaving in and out of people.

Parking is a whole other story. One is lucky to find a parking spot within ten minutes; it would be a miracle to have it be within a short walking distance to store entrances. Still, the happy faces on Christmas day make it worthwhile. After all, that's what I was shopping for in the first place. -- Casey Koehly, Monte Vista H.S.

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