1. Create a plan
When you create a shopping plan, be as detailed as possible. List each store you plan to visit and what items you hope to find in each. If you aren't certain that you'll find what you are looking for in store #1, list it within store #2, as well. For example, if you want to buy Grandma a nightgown but aren't sure you will find anything you like at JCPenney (store #1), list it under Macy's (store #3), too. Then if you do find it in store #1, you get to cross it off your list twice! Also, be sure to organize your day according to what’s most important. Just in case there is a temper tantrum or sheer exhaustion sets in, get the gifts you need the most (especially any you have to mail) first. That way, if you need to stop before your plan for the day is completed, you know the most important gifts are already bought.
2. Set expectations
Let your kids know before you leave how long you expect the shopping to take, who you plan on buying gifts for (and specifically that they will not be getting any toys) and what type of behavior is expected of them. Offer a reward as incentive for good behavior. Rewards that work for my kids are getting an extra cookie, staying up late, or picking a movie for the family to watch.
3. Shop during less crowded times
If possible, try to plan your shopping when the stores are less crowded. If you can, shopping before noon on a weekday is ideal. If that's not possible, try early morning hours on any Saturday or Sunday besides Black Friday weekend or the weekend immediately before Christmas. I have also found that the after-dinner hours on a Friday or Saturday night are not very crowded—but depending on the age of your children, this time might not be workable.
4. Eat before you walk out of the door
Everyone (including me) behaves better on a full stomach. Make sure that all of you have a good meal before you head out the door. Also, be sure to pack snacks and water. Shopping is draining and you’ll need to refuel sooner than you think.
5. Bring a bag of tricks
In addition to snacks, bring activities that will keep your child entertained. A DS or other handheld gaming device is great for this situation. If you don't have one, give your child your phone to play with. Let them take pictures, play games or watch videos (if your phone has the capability). For younger kids, bring any small toys they like. Just remember that younger kids get bored quickly so you will need to bring several toys.
6. Get them involved
As fun as the DS or phone can be, it too can get boring. So, get your kids involved in the shopping! You can let them help you make final decisions on a gift. This is especially great if you don't have an opinion one way or the other. For example, you know you’re getting your niece lotion from Bath & Body Works, so let your child pick the scent (a younger child can choose between two scents). Another great way to get them involved is to ask them where they think the item you are looking for is located in the store. You can use your investigative skills to hunt down that popcorn popper together. Finally, my kids love crossing items off the list. I give them a big marker or pen and let them feel the satisfaction of one more item crossed off the list. Also, this visually shows them how much you've accomplished and how much is left to do.
7. Rate the Christmas themes
One “game” my kids love to play is rating the decorations, music selection or cleanliness of stores. I ask them to take a good look at any one or all three of these aspects of a store and give it a letter grade (A–F, like school work). Younger kids can give it a thumbs up or thumbs down. After a couple of stores have been rated, you can ask, "You gave both Target and Kohl’s a thumbs up on decorations. Which decorations did you like best?" This keeps them engaged and gives them something else to do while they’re in the store.
8. Take frequent breaks
As much as you might want to get the shopping over with as soon as possible, remember that kids can't barrel through several stores without a break. Be sure to take bathroom breaks, snack breaks and even a fun break. If you’re going to a mall with a carousel or play area, give your child time to play. If not, perhaps plan a "looking only" trip to the toy store so they can play with sample toys. Not only does this give kids something to look forward to, it helps them release their pent up energy and behave better in future stores.