SAN DIEGO — It continued to look a lot like Christmas on Thursday at shopping malls in San Diego and across the country as shoppers gathered to search for Christmas merchandise with post-Christmas prices attached.
As they have in past years, many merchants decided to burn the holiday candle at both ends--opening early and closing as late as midnight--and many shoppers were lined up well before the stores opened.
By 8 a.m. Thursday at Carlsbad's Plaza Camino Real shopping mall, "latecomers" to close-in parking lots were greeted by "full" signs. At one Hallmark card shop, customers stood four deep waiting for bargains on Christmas cards and wrapping.
Sales at Bullock's in San Diego's Mission Valley Center were "running at least 8% ahead of last year" by 9:30 a.m., general manager Jack Larsen said.
As many as 500 shoppers had jockeyed for position outside the store's entrances before the 8 a.m. opening, and Larsen said he stationed himself in front of an escalator to help protect shoppers as the crowd surged toward items marked down by as much as 50%.
Get Up Early
"I didn't know so many people had the gumption to get up this early," grumbled one Bullock's shopper, clutching a bag filled with bargain-priced Christmas decorations and wrapping paper. He finished his purchase early enough to avoid lines that grew to more than 30 persons.
Horton Plaza, which opened in August and is completing its first Christmas shopping season, provided an eerie contrast to the early-morning, bargain-hungry shopping rush at some of the county's older, established malls.
At 8 a.m., small groups of from five to 15 shoppers who had made their way through an early-morning fog that covered much of downtown were clustered at the entrances to Horton's four major department stores.
However, shopping activity at Horton Plaza picked up later in the day as offices opened and shoppers made their way downtown.
"We don't have the immediate residential base surrounding us like the suburban malls do," said Lesley Binder, Horton's director of marketing. "Consequently, it takes us a bit longer to get the crowds."
Even if shoppers continue to turn out in force this weekend, however, the Christmas selling season is expected to be little more than mediocre. Throughout the season, the best that major merchants have been able to muster is cautious optimism.
For Sears, Roebuck & Co., the nation's No. 1 retailer, sales on Monday and Tuesday were much stronger than expected after relatively soft business for most of December. "Consumers obviously waited until the last minute to shop," spokesman Ernie Arms said.
The traditional Thanksgiving-to-Christmas shopping season was six days shorter than last year, and "it kind of caught up with them," Arms said, adding that "it's still touch-and-go whether our sales for the total period will be slightly higher or slightly lower than last year."
The last time Sears' December sales fell from the previous year was in 1978, Arms pointed out.
Despite three hectic days before Christmas, "overall (holiday) sales were somewhat flat, as predicted," said Mary Lorencz, a spokeswoman for K mart, the nation's second-largest retailer.
Analysts continue to expect December sales to be a modest 5% to 6% ahead of last year. Christmas will be "satisfactory--not strong, but not a bust, either," said Monroe Greenstein, an analyst with Bear, Stearns & Co. in New York. "It's probably the best you could have expected."
Although heartened by the activity, Allen Questrom, chairman of Bullock's, indicated that the season has proved disappointing. "We put a lot of effort all year long into making this Christmas a special thing for our customers," he said. Sales "did come on stronger over the weekend, but to go through the whole month day by day and not see (strong gains) takes some of the joy out of the season for our folks."
Edward S. Mangiafico, chairman of May Co. California, was more upbeat. "The crowds are good," he said. "As far as the season is concerned, it looks pretty good."
Carter Hawley Hale Stores, the Los Angeles-based parent of the Broadway, Neiman-Marcus and Contempo Casuals, reported good business in the four days before Christmas. "We'll show modest increases over last year," spokesman Bill Dombrowski said. Despite warm weather in California, which accounts for 70% of the company's business, "it was a sensational year for sweaters." However, sales of some basics such as men's underwear and socks proved disappointing.
Of the four major Southern California chains, J.W. Robinson's Christmas appears to have been the merriest. "The weekend before Christmas was good--at or above (expectations) each of the days," said Steve Regur, vice president of marketing. As a result, despite weaker sales earlier in the month, the chain foresees double-digit gains for December.
Interest in post-Christmas Day shopping has continued to build, according to Larsen, who has shepherded shoppers through Bullocks stores on Dec. 26 for the past 30 years.
"We hit a lull during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it's been picking up each year because we're offering better values on our regular merchandise," Larsen said. "Each department has merchandise that's marked down by 25% to 50%."
Taking advantage of a trend that is spreading to malls around the country, San Diego's Fashion Valley Center this year sold more than $238,000 in gift certificates that can be honored by any of the mall's department and specialty stores. That broke last year's record of $195,000.
"People use them because it makes shopping very easy and everybody gets what they want," spokeswoman Marilee Bankert said. "(Shoppers) don't have to run to one store for Aunt Millie and then to another for their nephews and nieces."
Johnson reported from San Diego, and Groves reported from Los Angeles. Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Daniel Akst in Los Angeles and Robert Hanley in Costa Mesa.