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Tales from the retail trenches: Shop clerks tell all Add to ...

The last-minute shopper is a haunted creature. The desperate search for gifts can take some mad turns; salespeople, jewellers and lingerie boutiques are often confronted with big-picture requests sweetened with cash.

And it's not just shopping. One would think that at the spa, for instance, all would be calm, but as one Calgary aesthetician and spa owner says of their 50-per-cent cancellation policy at the busiest time of the year, "I have had regulars break up with me, hang up on me or threaten to tell all of their friends about me. We can take cancellations 48 or 24 hours ahead but not 20 minutes."

Good graces fly out the window like the down of a thistle. The owner of one high-end boutique in Calgary recounted, "Often, it's one of our regular clients' husbands who calls the day before Christmas desperately wanting a gift for their wife. In most cases, I don't have anything that is appropriate or will fit. But as one barked at me, 'I couldn't care less if she does or doesn't like it. Just get me something.' "

Herewith, tales from the snow globe world of retail.

Sweet nothings

"It happens all the time," says Kim Stern, owner of Apartment 22, a hip boutique near Hotel Arts in Calgary. "We only have limited merchandise, so when one of our good customers asked us to put some things aside for her husband to buy her for Christmas we did." But the hold was only good for two days, and unfortunately the husband showed up two days before the 25th - two weeks too late. "Of course he was angry," explains Ms. Stern. "We'd sold them. First he berated me. Then he asked for the goods to be over-nighted, and finally he chastised me for not calling to warn him."

Not everybody is crabby, however. "A loyal, male client needed three identical kimonos a week before Christmas," says the manager at a Vancouver lingerie boutique. "Whether they were for the gentleman's mistresses or his wife and daughters, he didn't say - but we had to call locations all over North America in order to track them down."

At Avec Plaisir, a Toronto boutique known for its high-end European lingerie, men often dash in at the 11th hour, according to owner Vasilia (she never reveals her surname). "Usually those are the best shoppers … because they're looking for the best and price is no object," she says. Most purchases range between $500 and $1,000 during the holidays. Two years ago, one man's gifts totalled in the "five digits" and included bras, sleepwear and swimwear. The woman on the receiving end was pleased: "Nothing came back," Vasilia says.

Sparkle plenty

At Montreal's Birks & Mayors, the downtown address for sparkly cadeaux, " I need this" is the battle cry of many a desperate husband, who slaps down photo printouts from the Birks' website or a holiday catalogue embellished with Post-It notes. One may argue that such blatant hints spoil the surprise on Christmas morning, but as strategic shoppers will concur, it only makes sense to ask for what you want.

Luxury Toronto jeweller Myles Mindham recalls the time a few years ago when a regular customer came in and purchased a $450,000 necklace right before the holiday. "He had bought himself a sports car and she had seen this piece and this was a guy who just adores his wife," he says.

Toronto jeweller John de Jong may text pictures tailored to a woman's collection to her husband late in the evening or arrange delivery faster than Santa. "We had one request - it was driven from the workshop to the client outside the city," he recalls. "It arrived at the gates to the house right before they left for the airport." It was a serious necklace with matching earrings, just shy of $100,000. Still, Mr. de Jong admits things could be worse. "We haven't had to helicopter something in yet."

Matthew Davignon, salesman at Montreal's Holt Renfrew, tells the tale of a "prominent real estate agent in Montreal" who stormed in toting a celebrity magazine. "She showed me a photo and said, ' I want this.' " She was pointing at a ring an actor was wearing. "I knew the ring was a David Yurman. Black diamonds and sterling silver." He also knew Holt's didn't carry that piece of ice. Property Princess begged. Mr. Davignon had to find the ring, track down the Toronto rep and put in an order. It would take 12 weeks. More begging. Not one to let a ring interrupt this circle of love, Mr. Davignon tracked down a retailer who had it. Happy endings all round.

Toys 'n' Tots

While Pinocchio's Pick of the Crop toy store in Oakville gets special orders for Hansa plush animals (which run in the $400 range), Robin Merry, the owner, says, "We get a lot of aunts and uncles going to get-togethers with family they only see once a year. They tell us a boy or girl and age and then give us 'the look.' "

Julita Pascal, assistant manager at Toronto toy store Oink Oink, says that women will cave to the pièce de résistance gift for girls, the KidKraft Annabelle dollhouse, $259. "We probably sold over 60 of those last year," she says. She also cites parents who pull out all the stops before the holidays. "If they want a Thomas the Train table with all the accessories, that can be over $1,000."

Decked halls

It's not always about shopping - sometimes, it's about decorating. Shawn Gibson, co-owner of Toronto's Teatro Verde, a home accessories and floral shop, says that, a few years ago, he and his partner Michael Pellegrino decked the halls of a 10,000-square-foot home on four days' notice. "They wanted it fully done," he says, referring to the colour-co-ordinated decorations and verdant arrangements that cost in the range of $60,000. "Some people just love Christmas," he says. "It has nothing to do with religion; it brings out their theatrical side."

Youssef Hasbani, owner of Toronto's home decor/accessories store L'Atelier, sold a client a life-size deer made of wire woven with strands of tiny lights two days before Christmas last year. He had to send it by truck to the Forest Hill home. Cost: $2,600. "It was a buck," he jokes. This year, he has moose.

Karen Ashbee, Calgary; Patricia Gajo, Montreal; Rebecca Tay, Vancouver

Special to The Globe and Mail

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