Sharon Brown deftly maneuvered a shopping cart brimming with toys past racks laden with women's coats into an aisle stacked with children's clothing. She snatched two boys' shirts from a rack and flung them on top of her cart.
Next she pushed her way over to the girls' underwear and plucked a package of size 8 panties that are much too large for her 3-year-old daughter. "It's OK. She'll grow into them," reasoned Brown, 33, as she plopped them in her cart and turned her attention to the socks.
The Buena Park-based Gemco discount store chain is going out of business and on Thursday it started a two-month liquidation sale. Thousands of shoppers rushed to the 80 Gemcos in California, Arizona and Nevada. Brown went to the Gemco in Culver City, normally the busiest store in the chain.
But on Thursday, all the stores were busy. Employees at the chain's Fountain Valley store--one of six Gemcos in Orange County--said more than 200 people lined up outside the store by 9 a.m., waiting for it to open.
Therisa Herring, a cashier at the store, said that "chaos" was the rule for most of the day, although things had simmered down some by 3 p.m., allowing workers to take a break and talk about it before their supervisors ordered reporters off the property.
"People were buying $200 or $300 worth of stuff. It was crazy," said Herring, 22, a cashier and one of 20 temporary employees hired at the Fountain Valley store to help with the going-out-of-business sale. "An old guy knocked over a big stack of Igloo ice chests and everyone applauded. I'm getting paid $3.65 an hour . . . for six hours, and now I kind of wonder whether it was worth it. I worked like a dog today."
Some stores were so crowded that by mid-afternoon shoppers were turned away because of fire laws that limit occupancy, said Sam Nassi, who is liquidating Gemco.
Nassi said the Gemco merchandise was worth $400 million at wholesale prices, making it the biggest liquidation sale ever in the West. That compares to the record $1-billion liquidation of the W.T. Grant chain 1975.
The 27-year-old chain is being closed by its owner, Lucky Stores, as part of a massive corporate restructuring intended to deter a $1.89-billion takeover attempt by New York investor Asher B. Edelman. On Thursday, Lucky's board of directors rejected for a second time an offer by Edelman to buy the Dublin, Calif. company.
The liquidation sale was the first time that shoppers who weren't Gemco members were permitted in the store. That was underscored Thursday in the Culver City Gemco as a voice on the store loudspeaker welcomed "members and guests" to Gemco. The chain had sold memberships for $1, which presumably allowed members to shop at Gemco for life.
Long Checkout Lines
That deal ended last week, and now thousands of shoppers skipped work for a few hours on Thursday to buy among other things toys, clothes, tools and books at a 15% discount. Bargain hunters guided their shopping carts through the crowded aisles as if in a roller derby. The pace slowed to a crawl at the checkouts, where shoppers stood 10-deep before noontime waiting to pay for their bargains.
In Fountain Valley, as announcements over the public address system warned that no checks would be accepted, middle-aged men studied exercise bicycles and young mothers stocked shopping carts with Halloween candy and Christmas decorations.
As his wife waited nearby, John Costello of Costa Mesa sat in the center of the shoe department and tried to find a matching set of leather sneakers. It took 45 minutes. He settled for an 8 1/2 for his right foot and a size 9 for the left.
"Hey, they fit. That's what counts," the elderly man said. "I got these Pumas for $24.95 minus the 15% discount. It's a pretty good deal."
By late afternoon and after dealing with countless shoppers, some workers appeared frazzled.
The cashier in the Fountain Valley store's record and tape department snapped at a customer for asking if the total price already included the 15% advertised discount.
"If you'd been here all day, with people asking you that same question over and over again, you'd act this way, too," the woman said.
"It's one of the best openings in our history," proclaimed Nassi, who says he had handled 80% of the major retail liquidations.
Gemco's liquidation presents some unusual problems. For one thing, Nassi said, a large amount of merchandise is being sold through a relatively small number of outlets. Each Gemco store is selling $5 million in merchandise.
Nassi faces time pressure, too. He agreed to complete the sales before Christmas so that 54 of the stores can be transferred to their new owner, Minneapolis retailer Dayton-Hudson Co., which plans to convert them to Target discount stores by mid-1987. Normally, a liquidation of Gemco's size would take three months, Nassi said.