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SHOP 'TIL YOU DROP : When It Comes to Spending, Orange County Ranks No. 1

December 05, 1987|STEVE EMMONS and MARK LANDSBAUM | Times Staff Writers

From inside Bullock's on the first official day of Christmas buying, you could see the early shoppers out front waiting to get in.

It was 7:30 in the morning, and they were sipping free coffee and shivering. But they were eager and ready to spend.

Bullock's and other South Coast Plaza stores marshaled their staffs and threw open their doors to the early birds at 8 a.m. that day--the day after Thanksgiving.

For stores like Bullock's, Orange County shoppers are retailing's golden geese. They are a breed apart, an economic phenomenon.

No one spends like Orange County shoppers. They flood the malls not only during the holidays but in February and May too. Last year, Orange Countians spent an average of $6,320 per person at retail stores, the third highest average in the state, according to the Board of Equalization. By spring 1987, Orange County had moved to No. 1.

Given the clout of the Southern California retail market, that probably makes Orange County shoppers world class as well.

"It's easy to say people in Orange County are affluent, and that explains it," said Mark Baldassare, a professor of social ecology and sociology at UC Irvine who has been conducting attitude surveys in the county since 1982.

"It probably goes beyond that to a life style that is more focused on spending and keeping up with the Joneses."

Or with the Bentons.

Alice Benton works as a financial administrator in a dentist's office, but her real vocation is declared by the sign in her car window: "Born to Shop." She and her 15 credit cards were waiting in the 7 a.m. chill for Bullock's doors to open.

An untimely injury--torn tendons in her right shoulder--had not kept her out of the game. To carry all her packages she had brought her 12-year-old son. His name is Cash.

Cash said he, too, loves spending money, but not the way his mother loves it. He estimated that she would spend $500 very quickly that day.

"Oh, at least, " she said.

While living in Mission Viejo, she developed an attachment to Orange County shopping centers that persists today, even though in 1980 she moved 140 miles away to Ridgecrest in the Mojave Desert.

So she drives the distance regularly to shop in Orange County. Then during the first weekend of each December, she goes on vacation from her family--and shops in Orange County.

"There's so much available here," she said. "And it's fun to compare."

But, she added, she's not much of a shopper compared to the "professionals" she encounters inside.

Patricia Hamilton--formerly of Palm Beach, Fla., but now living in Newport Beach--has seen some of the "pros" from her vantage point as supervisor of the handbag department at the Gucci shop in South Coast Plaza.

She has lived in Orange County two years, she said, and although she considers herself a shop-till-you-drop consumer, she is amazed at the Orange County eagerness to spend.

"Working at Gucci's, I handle the higher-priced merchandise," Hamilton said. "But people don't bat an eye at the price. They don't even care."

Most of her customers come from Newport Beach, but "people who can't afford it will save every penny, just to have a Gucci bag," she said. "It's wild out here. People are different."

Such attitudes have given Orange County a reputation for being the Rolls-Royce of consumer markets. It is only fitting then that for the past decade, Orange County's Rolls-Royce franchise has ranked first or second in sales for the entire nation, according to sales manager Roger Fletcher of Newport Auto Center.

Baldassare said there is "a social phenomenon at play in Orange County that sort of accentuates the spending."

He said that during his six years of surveying Orange County attitudes he has interviewed about 20,000 residents on various topics. "About four in 10 people describe themselves as being above middle class in orientation," he said.

"That's a lot of people who consider themselves upper middle class or higher, and they are busy trying to prove it. And one of the obvious ways is by buying more and spending more. You get into this whole spirit of conspicuous consumption."

Sy Lieberman, a social psychologist whose New York-based Lieberman Research Inc. conducts Money magazine's annual consumer attitude poll, said the shopping urge is abetted by the change in the nation's view of wealth.

"There was a period way back--around the '60s--when it was socially acceptable to put down material possessions," Lieberman said. "At the time, people said that making money, acquiring things, that sort of thing, wasn't what it was all cracked up to be. It was called reverting to basic values.

"That's all changed. People are back into worrying about getting jobs, majoring in college in things that will help them get a job. People seem to be back to the materialism thing."

Baldassare said a more subtle force is at work that helps fuel the spending urge in Orange County, "and one of these days I'll be able to prove it scientifically."

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