Tens of thousands of shoppers, probably the largest crowd of them of the year, are expected to flock to Orange County's shopping malls today to begin their monthlong ritual of Christmas consumption. That is, if they can get there.
The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year, and by early afternoon, shoppers are expected to be overflowing from mall parking lots and backing up onto surface streets. In past years, lines of mall-bound motorists in Costa Mesa have extended from South Coast Plaza all the way down the nearby off-ramps onto the San Diego Freeway.
"From what we've seen, it's the worst day of the year," said Sgt. Robert Ballinger of the Costa Mesa Police Department's traffic division.
From what Pamela J. Edwards has seen, it's one of the best days of the year. The 54-year-old Lakewood woman said she will be at South Coast Plaza today, even if she collapses Saturday. "I like the excitement. I like to get out with the crowds. . . . It makes you feel like a real shopper."
The excitement, at least for Costa Mesa traffic officers, may double this year because the Orange County Fairgrounds Swap Meet is heavily promoting a special session today for Christmas shoppers. On just a normal swap meet day, traffic backs up onto both the Costa Mesa Freeway and Fairview Road.
'What Can You Do?'
"We do have extra people at both the plaza and around the swap meet, but there comes a point where it literally gridlocks," Ballinger said. "It's kind of like the freeway at rush hour. What can you do to make traffic move?"
Implied answer: Nothing.
Still, the safest bet of the day, say the managers of the county's major malls, is that regardless of bumper-to-bumper traffic in the parking lots and shoulder-to-shoulder traffic in the aisles, the shoppers will come and keep coming in tremendous numbers.
"Our average daily count is about 20,000 people," said Maura Eggan, South Coast Plaza's director of marketing. But with a new section of the shopping center completed in time for today, today's crowd will easily be twice the norm, she said.
Deidre Palmer, Brea Mall's director of marketing, said her mall's parking lots hold 5,000 cars when full, "but we figure there will be between 20,000 and 24,000 cars in and out" today.
And while on normal shopping days each carload has an average of 1.7 people, on the day after Thanksgiving it has consistently been 2.8, she said.
"It's really a family outing," said Roger McGonegal, the general manager of Westminster Mall. "In general, it's a family holiday feeling. Maybe it's because they're full of turkey and want to walk. It's kind of the American thing to do.
"A lot of people will show up, but they won't necessarily buy. The past few seasons, the consumers have held off on the first week or two of December, and then the frenzy begins," McGonegal said.
Barbara Roppolo, general manager of Fashion Island in Newport Beach, said she has wondered about the reasons behind the huge day-after-Thanksgiving crowds.
'A Family Event'
"Maybe it's because the kids have the day off," she said. "The kids are home from school. Friday, they kind of need to get out and about. Maybe parents want an idea of what the kids want for Christmas. It's the day Santa arrives (at most stores). It's an opportunity to have a family event."
So on that day, merchants "count on impulse buying, because the whole family's there to consult. And the goods are the freshest and in the largest quantity and selection is its best," Roppolo said.
She said she discovered that Christmas crowds seem to be an attraction, not a deterrent, to the Christmas shopper. In past years, she said, Fashion Island included a mail-order section in its catalogues, "and it wasn't very successful. There's something about touching what you're buying. People want to come to the center," Roppolo said.
The result: "By 1 in the afternoon it's usually popping at the seams," McGonegal said. "We're open until 10 o'clock that night, and there will be shoppers here until the end of the business day.
"The real shoppers will come out early," he said. "They'll be lined up at the doors when we open."
That is not a bad tactic, according to traffic police who have worked these crowds.
"Something you have to realize is that traffic flows very smoothly as long as there are parking spaces," Ballinger said. "But as soon as the lots are full, then the backup begins. They're circling the lots looking for space, and others can't get into the lots.
"Usually they just wait," he said. "They'll drive around 40 minutes or so; it'll take them that long to drive around (South Coast) Plaza."
Another Main Entrance
And since the new addition to South Coast Plaza has opened, Bear Street, the mall's "back door" of previous years, now is another main entrance. "Now Bear Street will be congested, too," Ballinger said.