Leanna Balzarini and her daughter Marla, in the middle of a Christmas shopping marathon Friday at The Oaks mall, juggled packages from half a dozen stores.
But inside the bags were sensible items all purchased on sale--flannel sheets, clothing, an electric blanket. This year, tough economic times have forced the family to forsake fun gifts in favor of practical ones, said Leanna Balzarini, 51, a nurse.
"I've never been a sale person, and now I'm looking at them," she said. "I'm just not buying the way I used to. It will be a lot less this year, and it will be practical things--no luxuries for the kids."
On what is traditionally known as the biggest shopping day of the year, Ventura County shoppers at several stores said their gift lists are shorter this year, and that past extravagances in gift-giving have given way to practicality this year because of uncertainty about the faltering economy.
And despite a steady stream of customers, many merchants said shoppers are spending less money and taking more time to hunt for sales and bargains.
"So far, people have been very conservative this year," said Kay Lindgren, district manager of the Rainbow Gate children's gift shop in The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks. "I think this year we're going to have a hard time."
The Esplanade mall in Oxnard had an added damper to business Friday evening when a fire broke out in storage rooms behind Lechters kitchen supply shop.
The blaze, which set off alarms and sprinklers at about 6:15 p.m., was confined to the storage area and caused about $10,000 damage, Capt. Mike O'Malia of the Oxnard Fire Department said.
The store manager and three mall security guards were treated at the scene for smoke inhalation.
Mall officials evacuated the main corridor of the mall for about 30 minutes. After five engine companies put out the fire, the main area of the mall was reopened, but five or six shops remained cordoned off for about an hour. By 7:30 p.m. all the stores were open for business.
"It has been slow because of the recession, and now this," said Tina Eastland, a sales clerk at Lane Bryant, a women's clothing store next to Lechters. She and other clerks in the mall also worried about smoke damage to merchandise.
But employees at Video Concepts across the corridor from Lechters said the fire didn't affect their shop because customers were ready to go home anyway.
"More than anything it was interesting. I got it all on tape," sales clerk Ricardo Torrez said.
The cause of the fire was being investigated.
Earlier in the day, shoppers eager to take advantage of post-Thanksgiving sales crowded stores from The Oaks mall to K mart in Ventura. But some said they were out mostly to see how much they could save rather than how much they could spend.
"I'm just looky-looing right now," said a 28-year-old mother of two. "I don't have any money right now."
At K mart, Piru resident Mary Guevara pushed a shopping cart filled with winter clothing for her seven children and 11 grandchildren.
Last year, Guevara spent $500 on gifts for her whole family. This year, she hopes to spend less.
"We're trying to see how far we can make our money stretch," said Guevara, a grocery store cashier. "It's going to be very hard."
Sharon Smith, 40, a homemaker from Simi Valley, said she and her friends agreed to buy Christmas gifts only for their families this year and not to exchange gifts among themselves.
"We got together and discussed it and agreed we just can't afford to do that this year," said Smith, who spent Friday morning at The Oaks with her son Brendan, 9, buying gifts on sale.
A few shoppers, however, said they have no plans to curtail their spending on holiday gifts.
"I'll spend the same and I'll shop the same," said Ventura resident Jan Williams, 47, who was buying toys at K mart for her three grandsons. "I don't think people are buying into this bad news about the economy. If we start spending less, we're going to cause the problem."
Bob Libby, owner of Sandy Lane, a women's clothing store in The Oaks mall, said he has put much more merchandise on sale this year than last--nearly everything in the store. Customers are charging more instead of paying cash and being more selective, Libby said.
"The things we sold last year for regular price are on sale because customers demand it," Libby said.
"It's not that people don't have money," he said of his relatively affluent Thousand Oaks clientele. "They're holding onto their cash."
At The Connoisseur, a shop that specializes in putting personalized labels on bottles of gourmet wine, some corporate customers like doctors, who last Christmas spent as much as $3,000 on gifts for clients, are spending little or nothing this year, manager Ardy Tamburro said.
"People are buying the low-end gifts," Tamburro said. A last-minute rush in the days before Christmas may be the only hope for bringing this year's sales up to par with last year's, she said.
"We're just praying that something will get better," Tamburro said.
Several shoppers said the cost of giving Christmas presents has gotten out of hand in recent years, and expressed hope that the economic downturn could signal a return to simpler Christmases.
Santa Barbara secretary Bernadette Holmes, 47, who drove to Ventura in search of cheaper prices, said she plans to cook and bake for her family this year instead of buying as many gifts as she usually does.
"It's going to be a simple Christmas," Holmes said. "I think that will make it better."
Just three weeks ago, Lisa Goldman and her business partner Nina O'Connor began selling T-shirts and other items emblazoned with cartoon characters, from a cart called Cartoon Friends on the floor of The Oaks mall.
Despite the slow season, Goldman said they hope their moderately priced items will sell to parents who don't want to buy more-expensive toys.
"Things are bad everywhere," Goldman said, "but Christmas goes on."
Times staff writer Santiago O'Donnell contributed to this story.
* MAIN STORY: A1