And the countdown is on.

With just hours until Christmas Day, shoppers have been filling the stores during the last shopping weekend to pick up last-minute (or first-minute) gifts.

“It’s been a good season for us,” said Leeann Perez, store team leader for Target on Whiskey Road. “People have waited till the last minute a little more so than some other years, but the last few days have been extremely strong and we expect that to continue through Christmas Eve.”

Perez said that the Christmas holiday falling right after a weekend means more shoppers out and about in the final days before Christmas.

“With it falling on a Tuesday, you’ve got that last-minute rush,” she said. “And school got out Friday, so that’s when it started, this Friday evening.”

Target was open until midnight on Sunday and will be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. today. Perez said they closed at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve last year.

“We’re open a couple of extra hours just to accommodate those last-minute shoppers,” she said.

Beverly Smith, sales manager for Staples on Pine Log Road, said traffic has been heavy and steady in the final shopping days.

“It’s been going very well,” she said. “We’re busy during the daytime, and, in the evening times, it drops off a little bit, but traffic has been very good.”

Smith said Staples will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. today.

While you’re on the hunt for that one perfect gift, it’s easy to get distracted by the price tags, lists and lines, and the Aiken Department of Public Safety has a few tips to keep in mind before you head out to hit the stores.

Sgt. Jake Mahoney said motorists can expect delays and congestion, especially today.

“The southern portion of Whiskey Road in the city is always congested,” he said. “I would expect it to be the same this year through (this) evening.”

To avoid becoming a victim of a vehicle break-in, when you park your vehicle at a store or business, make sure to lock it, and don’t leave any valuables in plain view, which includes gifts.

Mahoney suggested placing valuables or gifts in the trunk of your vehicle or covered up if your vehicle doesn’t have a trunk.

“Make a trip home and drop some packages off before you go back out,” Mahoney said. “If there are no items in plain view, then you are less likely to become a victim. If there are items in plain view, then your risk increases significantly.”

Mahoney said it’s safer to go shopping earlier in the day, and he urged shoppers to park their vehicles in a well-lit area if it’s after dark.

“When you get out of your car, take a look around first,” he said. “If you see anyone who looks suspicious before you get out, don’t get out. Keep your car doors locked.”

He said you should also survey your surroundings when leaving the store and to have your keys in hand. If you see someone who looks suspicious, call 911.

“Anytime someone feels uncomfortable, that they’re being watched or that there’s a suspicious person around, we’re more than happy to come investigate,” Mahoney said. “That is our job. We would rather respond to a call that doesn’t lead to an arrest than to have not been notified and have something occur.”

Shoppers are also urged to “dress conservatively” and to not wear an overabundance of jewelry.

“You don’t want to stand out in a crowd as a juicy target,” Mahoney said.

Terri Whetstone and her husband Darriel said they took extra precautions when they went to Target on Saturday.

“This year, we were hit at our home,” Terri said. “Somebody went into our car and stole things out of our car. I usually keep my Christmas stuff in my trunk. Years ago, I used to go out shopping by myself, but at night now, I don’t do that unless he comes with me.”

“You have to be careful,” Darriel said. “That’s why I parked out under a light.”

Pamela Rodriguez of Aiken said she did most of her shopping earlier on Saturday in Columbia.

“It’s overwhelming,” she said of the traffic. “I just came from Columbia, and it’s back-to-back, bumper-to-bumper. But it’s good for the stores because everything was full.”

Rodriguez said she’s always cognizant of her safety and surroundings while out shopping.

“I like to keep my daughter close to me, and I don’t like for her to wander,” she said. “I have my keys prepared when I come in and out of the store, and I keep my purse handy. If I’m only using a debit or check card, I have that ready at the checkout line.”

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.