Catalogers Reach Extremes To Attract Holiday Shoppers

Couples who'll miss watching Mark McGwire hit home runs this winter can reminisce with this holiday season's featured his-and-hers gifts from the Nieman Marcus Christmas Book: Cracker Jacks boxes with surprises inside no one would throw away.

Nieman Marcus, Dallas, widely credited with pioneering the concept of attracting valuable customers and invaluable publicity with outrageous fantasy gifts at Christmas time, has replaced the stickers, paper magic tricks and other toy surprises in boxes of Cracker Jacks with objects of more value. For her, the $950 box includes a ring with either an emerald, ruby or sapphire cabochon — the gemstone can't be chosen ahead of time. For him, the $400 box includes silver vermeil and enamel cuff links in the shape of a box of Cracker Jacks.

Spokeswoman Chesie Breen said the company didn't rush to put together the treats when enthusiasm for America's favorite pastime heated up this summer.

“We were ahead of the game. We came up with this a year ago,” Breen said. “We had been researching ideas, and it seems there was renewed interest in baseball. We just got really lucky with everything this summer.”

While this year's gift may be coincidence, the company doesn't hesitate to note that its his-and-hers gift program — which has included mummy cases in 1971 and windmills in 1977 — was founded on the idea of seizing publicity. As the story goes, reporter Edward R. Murrow used to call Stanley Marcus to find out “what those crazy Texans were selling for Christmas.” One year, Marcus didn't have an answer and, realizing what a publicity opportunity he missed, he instructed his buyers to make sure he always had a good answer to that question.

In addition to the Cracker Jacks, other fantasy gifts offered in the holiday book include original seats from the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers' stadium, Ebbets Field ($2,750 for double seats and $3,750 for triple seats); a “Wizard of Oz” children's bedroom complete with hand-painted wall murals, a hand-blown tornado lamp, yellow brick road carpeting and other furniture for $150,000; and a $300,000 carousel with figures hand-carved by Larry Pefferly, an artist whose father was one of the sculptors of the Iwo Jima monument in Arlington, VA.

For the past four years, the holiday book also has raised money for charity by auctioning a fantasy gift. This year, it's giving away two gifts for Teach for America. The first, for a minimum bid of $25,000, is an America Online Keyword package, which includes a trip to Dallas to meet with a team from AOL's Digital City, who will help design the customer's Web site, a trip to AOL headquarters in Dulles, VA; a new computer and a digital camera. The second item is a re-edition of the crystal Lalique Poisson Fountain, with a minimum bid of $125,000. All proceeds over the minimum bids are donated to the charity.

While the Nieman Marcus Christmas Book might offer the most renowned fantasy gifts, it doesn't offer the only ones. Victoria's Secret, Columbus, OH, last year offered a $3 million Diamond Dream Bra, decorated with diamonds from Harry Winston Rare Jewels of the World, New York. This year, the company said it's continuing that theme with special fantasy holiday gifts scheduled to be revealed the last week of October.

FAO Schwarz, New York, offers fantasy gifts and six “ultimate experiences,” including a visit to New York, where the customer will stay at the Pierre Hotel while Mattel designers create a customized Barbie doll according to the customer's instructions. Fantasy gifts include a life-sized “Star Wars” C3PO action figure for $7,500 and a child's gas-powered, two-seat Range Rover for $18,750.

Hammacher Schlemmer, Chicago, is offering a Schimmel/Colani Pegasus concert grand piano in one holiday book for $150,000 and a horse-drawn sleigh in another holiday book for $6,000.

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