If you looked at today’s date and gasped, it’s probably because of this: Christmas is merely days away now and there are still presents that need to be bought, wrapped and given to friends and family. But there’s no need to fear – everyone has been there, and we’re here to help.
Shopping for holiday gifts may be slightly different this year, due to the ongoing pandemic, the new variant and restrictions that have come with it. Even so, just like Christmas’s past, shopping remains a routine necessity for many of us looking for the perfect presents to give our loved ones.
Traipsing through Belfast city centre or the local high street can be a hefty task though. If not done strategically, it can involve long queues, busy roads and sold-out items.
So here is our gift to you: the ultimate guide to getting the Christmas shopping done with minimum fuss. You’re welcome.
When it comes to stress-free shopping, we mean business. Michelle Greeves, Victoria Square’s centre manager says “always plan time to relax and enjoy a coffee or some lunch to recharge” when out.
Thinking of the task more like an experience, rather than a chore that needs to be done, can help with this.
And digital creator and shopping guru Gemma-Louise Bond, who has a healthy Instagram following on @gemmalouisebond, tells the Belfast Telegraph that she always has a plan before venturing into the town for a spot of festive shopping.
“Make a little route plan,” she says. “I always have a route in my head of where I'm going to go… so I park at St Anne’s cathedral and I can make a little route of where's the fastest place for me to go and do a loop, so I loop back to the car to maximise my time because you know when it's getting busy, you want in and you want out.”
Other advice to consider?
“Have your list ready, and stay calm,” Michelle says. “And maybe also treat yourself to a little gift along the way…after all you’re worth it.”
And if you need pointed in the right direction some outlets offer guides and help.
Victoria Square has a team of gift gurus based on the lower ground floor right now who are available to help with guidance and offer gift ideas.
Best times to shop
If you want to avoid slapping your hands on your face and screaming like Kevin does in Home Alone, we recommend avoiding the busiest shopping times (usually weekends) and getting it done as soon as you can. Naturally, the closer to Christmas, the busier shops are predicted to get.
What do the experts think?
“First thing in the morning or late night shopping which is now every night until Christmas,” Michelle says, pointing out that on dark evenings “the lights and atmosphere is truly magical”.
Gemma-Louise says she loves a late-night shopping spree. “I know most centres and the big high street stores are late-night throughout the week. So, I like to go on a Tuesday or Wednesday late night.”
On weekdays, Victoria Square is open from 9am to 9pm throughout the festive period, while on Saturdays, the shopping centre closes at 7pm.
CastleCourt is also open until 9pm on weekdays in the run-up to Christmas, as are many individual retailers in Belfast city centre.
Shopping centres across Northern Ireland will have similar late opening times.
If you’re not a night owl, Gemma-Louise recommends an early morning, when the shops aren’t as packed. “I try to go early in the morning, like maybe really early on a Saturday morning, get some brunch as well and meet up with a friend,” she says.
Best places to shop
With so many shops on offer, choosing where to start can feel slightly overwhelming.
Gemma-Louise says she loves Victoria Square because “they have a really great mix of high street and independent retail”.
“I love BTY Cosmetics for lots of really cool Korean skincare. Their brushes are the best,” she says, adding “I love Rio Brazil. They do the Veja trainers which are super cool. I would love a pair of those for Christmas.”
But if you want something a little bit different, the city really does have an eclectic mix of shops that you may not have thought of.
A new art and design-led gift and homeware emporium has opened at the Merchant Hotel, Gemma-Louise points out.
And she also recommends shopping locally and from independent names such as jewellery and accessories brand Lines & Current, which was founded by a mum of three from her box room in 2015.
“There's also a really great brand on the Newtownards Road called Haru [short for help and reuse], and they’re a sustainable fashion brand and they sell lots of really cool like vintage clothes,” she says, pointing out that a pre-loved iconic beige Burberry mac is on sale there right now.
When to stop
For shopaholics, knowing when to put the purse away can be difficult. And for the worriers, being anxious about whether you’ve got enough and if your loved ones will cherish what you’ve bought them can make the Christmas shopping trip even worse.
Gemma-Louise takes an almost methodical approach to the mission. “Just make a list, check it twice,” she says. “Tick it off and treat yourself too if you’re able to.”
And, keeping with the holiday spirit, Michelle says it’s OK to treat ourselves and our loved ones this Christmas, given how tough the last few years have been.
Always keep a budget though, to make sure you don’t overspend. The Consumer Council advises to always check the returns policy on products too because they vary from retailer to retailer, including time and additional charges.
With less than two weeks to go, all we want is for our Christmas shopping to be fuss-free. But are there any secret tricks we’re missing out on to get the job done?
“There are so many gems down little corridors”, Gemma-Louise says. “And I think also don't forget sometimes, a practical gift is a really great gift.
“So if you know someone that works in city centre, maybe they've been hybrid working, maybe get them a voucher for their favourite coffee shops so they can get coffee on the way to work or maybe for somewhere you can get lunch.
“There’s a wee place I love in Pottingers Entry called Grapevine. They do the best lunches, they’re so delicious.”
And last-minute gift-hunters can rejoice knowing that the safe option of gift cards are always available for shops across the city and beyond.
You can also order a Belfast city centre gift card from Townandcitygiftcards.com, which can be spent in more than 160 city centre businesses in retail, hospitality and more.
“Treat it as a fabulous day out. Only Belfast can offer that experience that is unique and magical – from shopping to socialising, sightseeing to soaking up the festive season,” Michelle says.
“The atmosphere of the city is amazing,” Gemma-Louise adds. “I was in at the weekend doing some shopping and it's just lovely to see. It's lovely to see people back in the city and enjoying it.”