It's one of those special presents that creates excitement even before it's opened. You present a coveted logo'd shopping bag. Inside is the ultra swank box from a fancy shop that makes the lucky recipient's heart skip and dance. It's from the kind of store you think you can't set foot in. Too expensive. Too snooty. Too … too.
I promise you this is true, because I just did exactly that. Shopping undercover in my Costco fleece-lined jacket, I visited six marquee Chicago stores, told the sales staff that I was looking for presents for less than $50 and came away with armloads of great options, beautifully gift-wrapped — at no extra charge.
Now, I know you're worried about snobby salespeople treating you like you don't deserve to shop in their rich people's stores. Fear not. I got warm and attentive service even though it was obvious that I didn't have a car and driver waiting at the curb.
Let's go shopping. (See photos of the goods mentioned below here)
•Everything about the expanded, new Ikram designer boutique — including its blood-red lacquer-look exterior — hollers dollar signs. Owner and fashion force Ikram Goldman (an early style influence on first lady Michelle Obama) caters to shoppers who can spend thousands on a dress you'll see in Vogue. They don't buy their outerwear at Costco.
So I was a little sheepish when sales associate Felicia Kovacs asked if she could help.
Too embarrassed to confess that I wanted to score some cheap wow gifts, I told her I was looking for stocking stuffers for under $50. She rose to the challenge, locating a gold-plated glass bead friendship bracelet for $35 and sending me to the housewares section on the second floor where there were many low-cost choices, including a paper-thin porcelain cup with elegant cherry blossoms for a mere $10.
"You got two for under $50. Even with tax it's $49.50," Kovacs cheered. (Actually even less: $49.39.) While I browsed all the racks of things I couldn't afford, Kovacs placed my bracelet in a small fabric Ikram jewelry zip bag, painstakingly pleated the tissue paper to cover it, put my frugal find in a signature red box, wrapped the box in matching red paper, tied it with a red ribbon, placed it in a shiny red shopping bag and handed me all that in a cloth shopping tote. Sheer joy.
•Just around the corner from Ikram is Jonathan Adler, the quirky emporium of home furnishings and miscellaneous fun accessories: "Purveyor of happy chic since 1993."
There were so many gifts here for less than $50 that I really couldn't make up my mind, wandering overwhelmed and indecisive as I stared at covetable items in turquoise and tangerine. Swayed by the dachshund packaging, I finally picked a colorful dog leash and a zippy sports car ornament (in lieu of the real thing). Consider this my hearty endorsement of Original Sin. I bought a salt and pepper set featuring a serpent and apple straight from the Garden of Eden. Susan Hier wrapped my gifts in acid green boxes and I walked out with a keeper shopping bag that says, "Layer your Lair with Love." Will do.
•Everybody knows Chanel, another daunting Chicago luxury destination for the deep-pocket set. The glass and steel doors here are so heavy, I could barely get inside the iconic store. When I declared my budget, a salesperson steered me to the makeup counter — because that's the only stuff $50 would buy. I considered a $32 lipstick but went with the $25 nail polish. Let's call it "le vernis nail colour" and it sounds so much more expensive. Tied up in Chanel ribbon in a teensy Chanel bag with a signature fabric camellia, you've got one lovely little package sitting under the tree.
Hey, big spender: A year ago, the nail polish was $2 cheaper. Oh well.
•I was concerned that, like Chanel, there would be almost nothing but makeup I could afford at Barneys, the chic New York import. Wrong.
Chelsea Passage, the gifts-and-more department on the top floor, had plenty to choose from. The travel cashmere lap robes in delicious cashmere zip cases were fabulous. But they were priced at nearly $300 so I petted them and moved on.
A fetching dog puppet was a good green kid choice, made from a recycled sweater for $38. What hipster doesn't need skull ice tongs? And for making a list and checking it twice, a note card holder is chic and kind of cheap. Add a Barneys box, Barneys black ribbon and a matte black Barneys shopping bag. Yummy.
•Tiffany and those blue boxes. Well, say no more. Skip the fine jewelry on one and head for the second floor. Here is a list of everything I found that $50 will buy at Tiffany: Boxed set of two decks of playing cards; coffee mugs; small glass bowls from Germany. Wrapped up with silky white (or holiday red) ribbon in the classic box in a Tiffany bag, any of these would make someone's Christmas merry.
•So now I am cruising back to work toting five — count 'em — high-end shopping bags when I stop to look in the window of the Apple Store. I'm in there all the time, yearning for … well, I've got a long shopping list for when I win the lottery. But, would I find anything gift-able here beyond some pathetic USB cable I could get for lots less on eBay?
Yup! Colorful iPod Nano socks for every day of the week except one ("You don't change your socks on the weekends," an Apple employee explained. I do too!). And, get this, an actual iPod — the postage-stamp Shuffle — rings in at $49.
Now I've got six shopping bags filled with luxury merch. I'm Super Santa, and you can be too. Yay us.
See Ellen's cheap finds from fancy stores and learn more in her Style Files segment Wednesday at 11:15 a.m. on WGN-TV Midday News, wgntv.com/midday
Luxury for less
•Be frank about your per gift spending limit — and stick to it.
•Beat the Christmas rush, shop weekdays when sales staff has more time to unearth frugal finds.
•Ask for all possible free perks: shopping bag, gift wrap, gift card, parking voucher.