'Twas the day after Thanksgiving and all through the land, shoppers were loosening their purse strings as the Christmas buying season got under way amid a flurry of sales and Santas.
By 7:30 Friday morning, Josephine and Walter Applegate had already arrived at San Diego's Mission Valley Shopping Center to snag a good parking spot and wait for May Co.'s 8 a.m. opening. The retired couple joined two dozen or so carloads of fellow early birds.
At nearby Fashion Valley Shopping Center, "the coffee mongers were banging on the windows at 8 o'clock," moaned a counterman at the Bake Basket pastry shop, across from The Broadway.
At the same time farther north, the aisles at the Temple City K mart were jammed with customers jumping at beat-the-clock specials.
"This morning was outstanding," said assistant manager Thomas Etchells at the San Gabriel Valley store. "I went to a couple of competitors, and they're not even doing a quarter of the volume we're doing."
He could not begin to estimate how many early birds were taking advantage of the 7 a.m. opening but said, "It feels like a million."
At the Nordstrom store in the Westside Pavilion, Linda Hoftyzer of Brentwood was at the door before the 8 a.m. opening "to beat the crowds." She is shopping later than usual this year and has noticed fewer things on sale. But with three teen-agers, she still expects to spend $1,000 or so on Christmas.
"No matter how hard I try, it's always around that much," she said as she bolted down an aisle.
There were plenty of early birds, to be sure, but throughout much of the nation, customers seemed to take a little more time to sleep off their turkey, with traffic jams and huge crowds building later in the day. Unseasonably warm weather lured shoppers out but also put a chill on the sale of winter clothes.
In Denver, "the stores downtown were kind of crowded but not as bad as you might expect for the day after Thanksgiving," shopper Teri Harte said. "I guess it's kind of hard to get into the Christmas mood when it's 65 degrees outside. Santa's standing outside the stores sweating, and the charity bell ringers are in their shirt sleeves."
"People may not be in the Christmas shopping mood if the weather is mild. That can be a deciding factor," noted Barbara Grigsby, a spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based Dayton Hudson, which operates Target and Mervyn's, as well as Midwest department stores.
The slow start Friday morning made for some nervous moments among Southland merchants. In San Diego, where shoppers are accustomed to the warm weather, "I was getting ready to slash my wrists, but just as I reached for the razor, they started coming in," joked Marilee Bankert, marketing director at San Diego's Fashion Valley Shopping Center. By midafternoon, shoppers were circling Fashion Valley's 7,000-car parking lot in search of spaces.
"They're really stomping up and down the mall now with a vengeance," Bankert said.
In downtown San Diego, Horton Plaza's 2,400-car garage was filled to the brim shortly after noon, and mall employees took to the streets with flyers directing latecomers to nearby lots.
At University Towne Centre, just east of La Jolla, shoppers were moving at a "quite normal rate" by 1 p.m., according to marketing director Rebecca Bresson. "It started out a little slower than usual this morning but now people are awakened and are rested up from a nice Thanksgiving," she said.
The warm, sunny Southland weather was blamed for holding shopper traffic at last year's level at the Beverly Center on the Westside. As of 3 p.m., the auto traffic was running just even with the same day last year, said Gayle Kantro, marketing director. Even so, she said, many of the mall's 185 stores were reporting strong sales gains of 5% to 8% over the same time last year.
Some Southern California retailing executives indicated that department store business has not been up to expectations, with coats, sweaters, jackets and rugby shirts having a lackadaisical performance. What this bodes for prices is unclear, but if the temperature stays warm and the merchandise piles up for the next 10 days or so, customers might see some markdowns, said Edward S. Mangiafico, chairman of May Co. California.
Weather proved to be a factor last year as well, when the day after Thanksgiving was soggy and blustery in many parts of the country. Retailers complained then that many customers decided to stay home rather than brave the weather.
The season has been devoid of a real "phenomenon" so far, retailers said, but merchants do report somewhat short supplies this season of laser guns, which shoot infrared light beams for a Space-Age version of tag. Lazer Tag by Worlds of Wonder--the same company that made last year's big toy hit, Teddy Ruxpin, the talking bear--and Photon by LJN Toys were hot sellers Friday.
"I sold 36 pieces in about 30 seconds after I unlocked the front door," said Randal Louallan, manager of the Zayre Department Store in Nashville, Tenn.