In a classic "Family Ties" episode, Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton hits a convenience store for his Christmas shopping. Wondering what we would do in such a last-minute scenario, we went to the local branch of a drugstore chain and a neighboring supermarket for ideas. Sure, these gifts might not be your choice if time was on your side, but in a pinch, they'll do the trick. And if some turn out poorly, at least you've given family and friends another gift: fuel for future teasing.
When you really don't know what to select, buy a selection of lottery tickets, especially the scratch-off kind. Something that at first might seem thoughtless becomes the best gift ever when the recipient wins big money.
Not especially creative but potentially perfect at the eleventh hour, a gift card isn't just a little piece of plastic — it's a restaurant meal, a tank of gas, a week's worth of lattes, or an iPhone repair.
Want a gift that will be enjoyed right away? Grab some grocery-store eggnog and a bottle of the hard stuff, and you've got a seasonal toast waiting to be made.
This time of year, the selection of cosmetics bags goes beyond the usual, with options in rich velvet and all kinds of sparkle. They're ideal for those who like to touch up on the go, as well.
WINE AND A CORKSCREW
Some fine wine or bubbly, that classic host gift, can be kicked up a notch with the purchase of a fancy corkscrew, often stocked in liquor stores this time of year.
A flashlight is a wholly practical gift, if not sexy or memorable. But the next time the power goes out and your dull offering turns out to be a lifesaver, they'll think of you fondly.
Someone obsessed with their coiffure can never have too many specialty products. Pick up a travel blow dryer, a hair straightener, or another fun gadget.
Grab the latest issue of your recipient's favorite magazine, pull out the insert, and order a gift subscription. This way, you have something to wrap up and a gift that reminds them of you every month.
HOT CHOCOLATE KIT
Spend a moment picking out a unique mug and a selection of gourmet hot cocoa mixes, and throw in a bag of marshmallows for a hot chocolate kit that will hit the spot on a freezing winter night.
Stores have "all-in-one" makeup kits — everything from glitzy eye shadow collections to the full-on makings of a completely new face, including shadow, blush, and lip color. Teens will go wild.
For her, for him, for everyone, slippers are a practical choice that can be chosen by theme (such as favorite characters) for a touch of whimsy.
Holiday parties scream out for fancy nails, and those who prefer to do their own manicures will enjoy a kit of a few nail polishes chosen in their favorite hue.
People who tend to lose gloves or misplace hats can never have too many, so consider giving some winter accessories to show your warm feelings.
Who hasn't smiled at a plush version of their favorite animal or cartoon character? This one's an all-ages favorite, although kids will likely be most appreciative.
For a movie night in a bag, grab a holiday classic or family favorite on DVD, some microwave popcorn, and a soda.
TRAVEL BOARD GAMES
Travel versions of popular board games will be much appreciated on the trip home from the holiday festivities, and can also be played throughout the year.
Candles never fail — just be sure to keep the recipient's sensibilities in mind. Don't give a heady floral-scented candle to a no-nonsense type.
CAR EMERGENCY KIT
All drivers — and especially the young — should have an emergency kit in the car for roadside issues that can be handled before a tow truck arrives.
Whether camping, ice skating, or watching a football game from the stands, a Thermos makes a welcome companion on a chilly day. It's a classic product that thoughtfully offers a bit of warmth.
Someone who's been talking about smoothies, protein shakes, or cocktails will appreciate getting a blender. The models available at work-a-day stores typically don't have all the bells and whistles, but they'll certainly do the job.
Encourage more evenings spent playing cards with a favorite game or two. The stores we visited carried decks of cards in an amazing range of themed designs.
AN ICE SCRAPER AND A PROMISE
Hand over an ice scraper and expect a groan. Hand over an ice scraper with an IOU to get up early and scrape the car during the first storm of the season and you'll be a star. (Just keep that promise.)
It's not a sign of getting older … well, maybe it is. But a magnifying glass comes in handy more often than you might imagine.
Everyone may grumble, "Oh, you shouldn't have," but you can bet a generously sized box of chocolates won't go to waste.
Pick up the biggest cake at the store — whether it be a brunch-worthy coffee cake, a traditional fruitcake, or something utterly decadent — and save someone the trouble of having to make dessert.
The selection of craft beer carried outside traditional beverage centers and specialty shops has expanded dramatically, making a last-minute purchase for a beer lover an easy gift.
NUTS OR FRUIT TRAYS
Selections of mixed nuts and dried-fruit trays add a tasty touch to any holiday party.
PHOTO FRAME OR ALBUM
Despite the popularity of all things digital, an old-fashioned family photo or vacation snap displayed proudly in the living room is still welcome, and requires a pretty frame or photo album.
This is literally a backup gift. Handy in a crunch, sometimes in clever designs, and always needing replacement because they're too easy to lose or leave behind somewhere, flash drives make good gifts for anyone with a computer.
HEADPHONES OR EARBUDS
It's also easy to lose headphones or earbuds — or put them through the wash — and multiple sets are always welcome.
Recalculating the budget after a generous holiday season, or any serious bout of math, is less painful with a real calculator. Not everything should be done with a phone app.
Seasonal and themed cookbooks remain a handy staple of the checkout lane and reading-material aisles at the grocery store. Grab a title for your favorite baker or chef.
PET TOYS OR TREATS
Give pet lovers anything for their pets, and they'll love you, too. Think toys, treats, and more.
The occasional commemorative magazine has become a constant, booming business. We spotted keepsake editions devoted to John Wayne, Barbra Streisand, and the local MLB team. These tend to top $10, making them a welcome gift for fans who may not have spent that much themselves.
We probably all have an umbrella — but quick, where is it? Is it convenient for the next sudden downpour? Or was it left behind in a cafe? An extra umbrella for a car, desk, or tote bag can prevent a drippy day.
For those who wear a different fragrance every day, holiday gift samplers make a fun gift and could lead to the discovery of a new favorite.
The novelty of coloring books for adults may have worn off, but people are still using them to de-stress. Pick up a book and colored pencils to spread a little serenity.
A journal can be someone's diet companion, their day planner, or the place where they let their dreams loose. Now that's a gift with versatility.
It can be helpful to have more than one calendar, with kids' activities posted in the kitchen, meetings on one in the home office, and so on. An extra calendar will get a workout.
ART SUPPLIES OR CRAFT KITS
Stock up on art supplies for kids and let their creativity run wild — or decide on a craft kit that yields a specific project.
The prevalence of the Keurig and other coffee-making machines has turned the coffee-pod aisle into a store within a store. Many people tend to buy in bulk depending what's on sale, so treat them to a pricier fancy brand or exotic flavor.
FLOWERS OR A PLANT
Don't just grab a cheap bunch of flowers. Pick a small arrangement in a keepsake vase or, even better, a plant that will last — for someone with a green thumb — for a long time. Some grocery stores even carry a selection of beautiful orchids.
Barbecue fans like to sample sauces, so pick out a few and put together a gift set that will really wake up the taste buds.
SAUSAGE AND CHEESE SET
Have you seen the sausage-and-cheese gift sets at the grocery store? They tend to arrive along with the holidays, for good reason.
There are a surprising number of inexpensive inspirational books that can offer a little lift to someone with a spiritual outlook. (Be sure to steer clear of anything overtly religious if you're not sure where the recipient stands.)
Fully cooked bacon — no refrigeration needed — brings the makings of a great sandwich or, when the game's on, a party in a cardboard box.
Give the gift of a new smile with an at-home teeth-whitening kit. True, someone could take offense, but if a family member's been hinting at trying it, consider that a go-ahead.
We were amazed to find a rhinestone-studded hair clip at the grocery store — a salon-quality accessory just waiting to add the finishing touch to a holiday hairstyle.
Holiday indulgences include cheese boards filled with exotic selections. Add to the mix by buying from the gourmet section of the grocery store, and they'll think you made a special trip to the cheesemonger.
REUSABLE GROCERY BAGS
Help someone commit to reusing grocery bags by buying a handful of the good canvas or insulated ones to keep in their car. The recipient — and the planet — will thank you.