Now that the holiday shopping season is in full swing, you'll probably have to navigate a retail gauntlet to pick up gifts for everyone on your list. You may think that as long as you don't headbutt another customer while going for the last Wii or get assaulted in a doorbuster frenzy on Black Friday, you'll be fine. You might want to reconsider, though, as any number of pitfalls could still give you trouble, including some that strike after you get your booty to its carefully chosen hiding place in your home. (And yes, your children know it's all hidden in the guest room closet.)
Everyone jokes about fistfights to get a particularly coveted item, but every year people forget the holiday spirit and decide to throw down. This year's Black Friday was no exception. Videos of a scrum for the last Xbox 360 trickled onto YouTube, but no story quite encapsulated the merry sentiments of shoppers quite like this one from Friday's New York Times:
At a Wal-Mart store in Columbus, Ohio, Nikki Nicely, 19, jumped onto a man's back and pounded his shoulders when he tried to take a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen television to which she had laid claim. "That's my TV!" Ms. Nicely shouted. "That's my TV!" A police officer and security guard intervened, but not before Ms. Nicely took an elbow in the face. In the end, she was the one with the $798 television, marked down from $1,000. "That's right," she cried as her adversary walked away. "This here is my TV!"
2. Store Bankruptcy
Nothing says "I care, but not enough to put any thought into your gift!" quite like a gift card from a big-box retailer. While sticking a gift card in an envelope may seem slightly more personal than giving cash, it carries some added dangers. In the current economic climate, it's not all that uncommon for a store to go bankrupt, which means your gift will also say, "I didn't care enough to investigate this merchant's underlying financials, either." Some estimates state that the bankruptcies of stores like Linens "˜n Things and The Sharper Image this year have killed off close to $100 million in gift card value.
You're not necessarily left out in the cold if you've got a gift card for a company that files for bankruptcy; Circuit City actually received permission to continue honoring their outstanding cards after filing for Chapter 11 a few weeks ago. Other stores will redeem their cards, but there might be a catch. When The Sharper Image filed for Chapter 11 earlier this year, it eventually allowed consumers to redeem their gift cards"¦but only if they were spending twice the card's value on a transaction. Companies don't have to do even that, though, and if the store for which you're holding a card goes totally belly-up and starts paying off its creditors, you're probably not going to see the $40 from your aunt. You can make a claim in bankruptcy court to get your cash back, but as an unsecured creditor, good luck seeing any money. You'll be one tiny step up the payment priority ladder from the kid the CEO borrowed milk money from in grade school and never repaid.
3. Filthy Money
You've probably heard statistics about just how grimy paper bills can get as they circulate. A 2007 Irish study found that 100 percent of tested bills contained trace amounts of cocaine. Your cash isn't just covered in narcotics, though; it's also crawling with germs. A 2001 study showed that 87 percent of bills contained bacteria that could conceivable make someone with a weak immune system sick, and 7 percent of the studied bills carried bacteria that could make even a healthy person sick. You're picking up bacteria everywhere, so you don't need to do anything rash like trade in your wallet for a coin purse. But if you're handling a lot of extra cash during your holiday shopping, you might want to stock up on some hand sanitizer.
4. Drug Trafficking
Just find that hot new toy you were looking for? You might want to give it the once-over to make sure it's not full of narcotics. Colorado authorities got a surprise as they investigated a methamphetamine ring in 2006; enterprising traffickers were packing toys with their wares. Most notably, an Elmo doll contained four pounds of meth. Watch out for this sort of trap if you decide to look for tough-to-find toys on the secondary market. It may seem like a long shot, but if your Elmo sweats and nervously scratches his face instead of giggling when tickled, you might want to keep moving.
5. Deadly Toys
Once you've scrapped and clawed for that perfect toy to put under the tree, you might want to make sure it's not conspiring to harm your child. For this year, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is warning against five specific types of toy threats: scooters (potentially deadly falls), small balls and small parts (choking hazards), balloons (again, choking), magnets (look delicious but cause injuries if swallowed), and toys with chargers or adapters (burn hazards).
Even if you manage to avoid all of those tempting-but-deadly toys, there's no guarantee that the toy you pick won't have a problem with high lead content. Last year manufacturers recalled close to 4 million toys due to lead concerns. Those Curious George plush dolls may have looked adorable, but The Man in the Yellow Hat never explained the less-cute symptoms of lead poisoning, including nausea, chest pain, and irritability.