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Choose wisely this Christmas.

Choose wisely this Christmas. Photo: Tamara Voninski

Never mind equities, bonds, real estate and currencies, the market that counts in these last two trading days before Christmas is the opaque, insider-riven business of trading gifts.

It’s an unregulated and uninformed market where lack of disclosure is the rule, fair value is devilishly hard to ascertain, supply and demand are all over the place and where even class action lawyers are scared to tread.

With the primary market a mess then, it’s necessary to turn to the secondary gift market to look for tradable trends. So I’ve searched out an after-market market maker of high repute – the manager of a lower-North Shore op shop.

No names, no pack drill, but we’re talking about someone who’s seen it all and handled much of it. We’ll apply the pseudonym Salvatore Vincent. What Sal deals is as good a guide as you can get to the undercurrents of the season’s retail level frenzy, what will be turning up in stockings and subsequently turned out in boxes dropped at Vinnies, the Salvos and Oxfam.

For example, the foot spa. My source tells me it’s a regular donation, sometimes with the box not even opened. Not a good investment in the gifting stakes, you might therefore think, but this is the most confounding of markets: “The thing about the foot spas though is that they also sell, people buy them,” explains Salvatore. Clearly the foot spa is a gift that can only go to a particular sort of recipient; one probably found looking through op shops.

What no-one has wanted for quite a while now is a copy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. “They go straight into the recycling bin. Good, bad or indifferent condition, doesn’t matter. Millions of ‘em. Don’t even think about it.”

And joining Dan is a growing wave of 50 Shades of Grey. Google shows “Fifty Shades of Grey” is an anagram of “Today’s Fresh Effigy”.  “We’re starting to get a lot of them,” says Sal. “We see one, we toss it straight across the shop and out.”

S&M is so last Christmas.

The Dans and Shades at least look like they’ve been read, or perhaps flicked through for pictures. What surprises Salvatore is both the number and condition of General Peter Cosgrove autobiographies. “I don’t think some of them have been touched, the spines haven’t been bent back. You can see someone thinking, ‘ah, old Uncle Joe, he’d like to read about General Cosgrove’ and Uncle Joe thinks ‘don’t be stupid’ and throws it out.”

So what is Sal expecting to receive in the post-Christmas rush?

“Fairy floss machines and pop cake makers. We’re already getting them, two came in today.” (Pop cake or cake pop makers, for the uninitiated, are machines that produce small cakes in the shape of round balls that can be served on a stick. Why, I don’t know, but that’s what they are. No doubt, back in the day, soap-on-a-rope seemed a good idea too.)

So novelty food appliances that take up space in kitchen cupboards would seem not to be a good gift investment, or certainly not a lasting one. There are only so many cake balls that a body can be bothered impaling. The op shop operative sees them going the way of many a home donut, ice cream and shaved ice maker before them.  But it’s not just kitchen appliances to be wary of in gift trading.

“Those Vidal Sassoon hair vacuum heat curlers, we’ll get those for sure,” says Sal, a statement that requires further explanation. “You know, the ad’s on TV. It’s a hand-held vacuum that sucks straight hair in and turns it into long curly locks.” 

The thought occurs that we have a Dyson that could suck hair in and do something with it, but I wouldn’t recommend the process.

“Think about it,” says Sal. “Electricity, long hair, vacuum, heating, a girl running late to go out – what could possibly go wrong with that? We’ll get them.”

I realise I am onto a source of valuable consumer behaviour information and press for more.

“Well, do you have a Target or Big W brochure at home? Just about any appliance in there – we’ll get them.

“But the worst, the absolute limit, are those freaking sickly-smelling cheap candles. We get thousands of them every year, stinking the shop out. Foul little things in red glass from the two dollar shops. Terrible presents – you’d be better giving nothing at all rather than one of those.” 

The extent of Sal’s dislike for scented candles surprises me, such relatively strong language, and it opens a vein of op shop pain:

“And you know what’s amazing? How they’re wrapped. Someone will start wrapping candles in an old doona, roll it a bit, then add a glass and a couple of plates, roll that and then a book.”

“General Cosgrove?”

“Yes, probably.”

But the brief flash of annoyance passes. Sal remembers something else.

“We get everything but what amazes me is the beautiful children’s books, big books of fairy tales and such, not opened, not read, the spines un-creased, with lovely inscriptions, normally from Nan and Pop. They’re great buying, particularly if you name is Nan or Pop.”

I thank Salvatore and head home for more research, fishing the latest clutch brochures out of the recycling. There on page 17 of the Big W Cha-Ching on-sale-until-December 24 brochure is the Vidal Sasson Curl Secret for $149, “as seen on TV”. And next to it for $24 is the HOMEDICS foot spa, “luxury foot bubbler with heat”, in fetching purple and white. Wonder how you pronounce that, stress the HO or the HOME?

Michael Pascoe is a BusinessSunday contributing editor, who wishes everyone a merry and safe Christmas.

Twitter: @michaelpascoe01