'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, 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.
At South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, the parking lots were almost empty when Bullock's got the jump on the competition by offering early risers free coffee at 7:30 a.m. By 8, about 40 bargain hunters were lined up outside Nordstrom and Bullock's, both of which were set to open two hours earlier than usual.
By noon, sales were brisk at much of the mall. At Bullock's, customers waited in line to go up escalators and lines snaked around the makeshift gift-wrap areas. "It's so busy upstairs, you can't even see the carpet," said store general manager Sue Graham.
Neil Merrill, general manager of the May Co.'s South Coast Plaza store, said Friday was the first time in two years that he has seen the May Co.'s five-acre parking lot filled to capacity before noon. "Today is without a doubt the biggest crowd we've had, including last year," Merrill said.
At the Nordstrom store in Los Angeles' 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.
At its 8 a.m. opening, Westminster Mall found relatively few takers for cookies and milk doled out to children by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa's elves.
"The early start wasn't really with it--there wasn't any rush, but the building started filling up nicely from 10 o'clock on," a spokesman 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.