Drawn by steep markdowns and "early bird" specials, holiday shoppers crowded the nation's malls and downtown stores Friday, prompting relieved sighs from retailers who feared that financial upheaval might chill Christmas spending.
In Southern California, many shopping centers got off to a slow start but generally reported brisk business by lunchtime, with determined customers circling parking lots for as much as half an hour to find spots. Once they did, they made beelines for the stores' many sale racks.
"There's no question that traffic is up substantially from last year," said William D. McDonald Jr., senior vice president of marketing and sales promotion at the 43-store Broadway chain, Southern California's largest department store operation. "We're quite pleased with the sense that the customer is out, at least. (But) the next day or two . . . will show if they're buying or just looking."
At Century City Shopping Center, Diane Frierson seemed to be typical of many shoppers. She plans to give just as many gifts this year but is looking mainly for sale items because of worries about what will happen to the economy next year.
"We're not impulse-buying," the Los Angeles resident said. "We're taking our time, looking for sales. We're playing it close to the vest."
As the Christmas selling season got under way Friday, customers and merchants alike seemed to be approaching it with caution. With many economists forecasting weak spending this holiday season, consumers are being watched as a barometer for the overall economy.
From New York to Houston to Atlanta to Miami, Christmas shoppers told of plans to hold the line and plans to go whole hog. If merchants wanted a consensus, there was none to be found.
Among retailers expressing relief was Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago. "There was some anxiety, certainly, but it looks as if people are out," said Paul Costello, a spokesman at the chain's downtown flagship store on State Street. The store expected a "terrific day," he said, with an estimated 175,000 people enduring a dreary light rain to cruise the store's crowded aisles.
By 8 a.m. in Manhattan, radio deejays were alerting prospective shoppers still trying to sleep off turkey dinners that traffic was backed up near the metropolitan area's big malls. Along Fifth Avenue, where a nippy drizzle chilled pedestrians, the market for bears was bullish at F.A.O. Schwarz, the tony toy store. Clad in tweed and velvet, seersucker and down, dressed as lumberjacks and queens, these stuffed animals enchanted youngsters and prompted parents to open their pocketbooks.
"This is not the year of one great toy," said Peter Harris, president and chief executive, who had just reunited a lost child with a frantic parent in the crowded store. "Customers are looking for quality and predictability, something that is going to last and be around for a while."
25% Off at Fiorucci
Fiorucci, a funky clothing and oddities store, used the unprecedented lure of a day-after-Thanksgiving, 25% discount to spur sales. "I think that people are a little scared because of the (Oct. 19 stock market) crash," said Tara Moran, director of operations.
Gray skies and misty rain didn't thwart shoppers headed to Atlanta's Lenox Square shopping center on Peachtree Street. Major stores opened at 7:30 a.m., and Rich's department store offered additional discounts--many on name-brand merchandise such as Van Heusen shirts and Levi's jeans--good from 7:30 to 10 only. Every 30 minutes, an announcer advised shoppers as to how many minutes they had left until 10 a.m.
In Houston's Galleria, the situation was much the same, with the bigger, promotion-minded department stores such as Macy's and Marshall Field ringing up most of the sales, while specialty boutiques experienced a quieter day.
Miami shoppers turned out in force by mid-morning in sunny, 80-degree weather. At the Falls, a suburban outdoor mall in Kendall, Bloomingdale's was the main attraction. With prices slashed an average of 30%, all departments were bustling. Women flipped through racks in the Next Generation department, where children's clothes were half price.
Biggest Shopping Day
Such sales are prevalent this year. The day after Thanksgiving is widely regarded to be the nation's biggest shopping day of the year. It officially ushers in the Christmas shopping season and serves as a bellwether for the retailing industry's most important selling period, which can account for as much as 40% of annual sales and 60% of profits.
In years past, retailers seldom offered many bargains during the holiday shopping season, when captive gift givers were inclined to spend full price for the right item. But this year promises to offer good hunting for bargain hounds, although the sharp price cutting does not bode well for retailers' profits.