Galvanized by price cuts, prizes and promotions, consumers descended on the nation's shopping malls in heavy numbers Friday, creating a genuine shopping rush on the traditional start of the holiday buying season--and reflecting how far San Fernando Valley malls have come in recovering from the January earthquake.
But while turnouts in much of the nation were among the largest ever, actual sales appeared to be up only slightly over last year--and much of that business was generated by bargain hunters.
In the Valley, the Broadway and Sears, Roebuck & Co. reported brisk business at Northridge Fashion Center, even though about 200 quake-damaged stores are still closed at the mall situated near the quake's epicenter.
The Sherman Oaks Galleria fared well, and the Glendale Galleria appeared to be benefiting richly from the Northridge mall's continuing troubles, with early counts indicating twice as many holiday shoppers as last year.
From across the country came reports of a buying frenzy at stores offering big discounts on pricey merchandise. Thousands jammed I. Magnin stores in Southern California, snapping up merchandise on the first day of a liquidation sale of a longtime retailer that will soon close its doors for good.
Traffic in downtown Chicago was heavy, parking lots were full and the shoppers wall-to-wall at Marshall Fields, but they described themselves as bargain-oriented.
Many shoppers said they planned to spend more money this holiday season, confirming recent poll reports of rising consumer confidence. But many of those planning to spend more also said they plan to spend later to take advantage of any additional discounting during possible season close-outs--a mixed outlook for an industry that is trying to put an end to that holdout habit.
Indeed, while spending levels may have been moderate in much of the country Friday, industry analysts expect sales to build closer to Christmas. Most analysts are predicting sales increases of 5% to 10% nationally and 5% to 7% in Southern California.
In the San Fernando Valley, Friday was an important test for malls damaged in the Northridge quake.
At Northridge Fashion Center, two anchor stores--the Broadway and Sears--opened earlier this month, amid dusty construction work that will continue into next spring on the 200 smaller stores still closed by damage.
Randy Mackay, manager of the Broadway, said the store "opened a little quieter than we'd like," but said that sales in recent weeks have been ahead of last year's pace. At Sears, which spent more than $8 million on repair and renovation work, store manager Ed Tiritilli said big crowds Friday erased his post-quake apprehensions.
By the time Sears opened at 8 a.m., 300 people were lined up outside the doors, Tiritilli said. By 10, the parking lots were filling, as shoppers rushed to get 10% discounts on purchases made before 11 a.m. "We were waiting to see what would happen without a mall," Tiritilli said. "The response has been excellent."
In Sears' hardware department Friday morning, Gale Marsh, 36, carried in her outstretched arms a $40 drill, a $15 drill bit set, a $20 plier set and a $20 screwdriver set--all Hanukkah gifts for her tool-collecting husband. "He doesn't use them," she said. "But he likes to own them."
In the holiday decorations department at Sears, Arpig Sorkazian, 41, and her 16-year-old daughter, Silva, of Northridge were shopping for a Nativity set because the one they had last year was destroyed by the quake. Though insurance covered most of the $75,000 in damage their home sustained, they said the quake has squeezed their holiday budget--a $75 Nativity set was rejected in favor of one that cost $25--and has made shopping less convenient.
"We have to go all the way to Burbank, Glendale and Topanga (Canyon Boulevard)," Arpig Sorkazian said. "We wouldn't have to if everything were fixed here."
The giant Glendale Galleria might have benefited most from Northridge Fashion Center's ongoing earthquake troubles. That mall appeared headed for 150,000 shoppers Friday, double the average daily traffic during the holiday season, said Richard Giss, a partner with the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche who spent the day at the Galleria tracking shopping activity.
Among those symbolizing shopper attitudes were Pamela Cox and Susan Cox-Simmons, twin sisters who roamed for deals at the Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles.
"I'm inclined to wait for more bargains, but it depends on what I find today," Cox said. "If I know the cost is the least for something on my list--I'll buy."
To be sure, shoppers in Southern California appeared to be responsive to promotions as well as discounts. At a Target store in North Hollywood, for example, about 800 people lined up before the store opened to take advantage of sales and a promotion--a free "Holiday Survival Package" that included coupons, shampoo, lotion, snacks and antacids. The package was offered to the first 1,000 customers at each Target store nationwide.