Orange County retailers pumped up the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season Friday with deep discounts and promotions, but it wasn't enough to get all the cash registers ringing.
While discount retailers in the county had throngs waiting in the brisk dawn, Fashion Island in Newport Beach was noticeably subdued and crowds at some other shopping areas were thinned, apparently by the opening of the new Irvine Entertainment Center.
"It's certainly not a case of shoppers beating down the doors trying to get in," said Tony Cherbak, a partner at Deloitte & Touche in Costa Mesa, after surveying the county shopping scene Friday.
Even so, many retailers in Orange County and throughout the Southland reported healthy turnouts. Other merchants, some of whom rack up nearly half of their annual sales during the month from Thanksgiving to Christmas, refused to read too much into one day's sales.
Instead, retailers pegged their hopes on the general optimism they sensed from their customers.
"The mood of shoppers is really positive," said Gary Elias, sales manager at Tourneau Inc., a fine-watch shop in South Coast Plaza.
John Konarski, vice president of the International Council of Shopping Centers, also was encouraging. He estimated that the turnout at Southern California's shopping malls was 2% to 3% better than last year's totals, slightly less than the national average.
Other analysts expect overall retail sales to increase 3% to 4% in the region this holiday season--about in line with projections for nationwide sales.
But what could throw a wrench into that, some economists say, is if increasingly debt-laden consumers throughout the country decide to pare their holiday spending.
On Friday, many buyers were more interested in browsing than buying, and others flew past regularly priced items in favor of merchandise markdowns.
Dori Boyles and her mother, Bobbi Edson, combed through blouses marked off 40% to 50% at the Nordstrom in MainPlace/Santa Ana. Boyles, 34, said her family and relatives had decided to put a cap on Christmas gifts this year.
"We have a family limit now," she said, noting that all the toys for children would be less than $10.
Retailers are betting on Christmas sales to help turn around what has been a disappointing year. Yet many consumers are showing caution about spending. Stretched budgets could make many shoppers buy more frugally.
Moreover, some shoppers complained that even with retailers' discounts, prices were still too high. But it was the lure of huge discounts and door-opening gifts that brought many shoppers out early Friday.
Roy Fujii, a Hughes engineer who lives in Irvine, was one of 500 people who went to the K mart in Tustin early enough to pick up a free fanny belt stuffed with coupons. At the same time, his wife, Mia, a computer software saleswoman, was at a Target a few miles away, getting her gift--a grab bag filled with Band-Aids, aspirin and Pop Tarts.
But neither bought very much at the discount stores, and by 9:40 the couple were waiting for a movie at the new Irvine Entertainment Center.
"We'll probably buy as many presents as we did last year," said Mia Fujii, "but we want to spend a little less."
The feeling was mirrored throughout the country.
In Chicago, Marshall Field's President Dan Skoda said the department store's 2 million square feet were packed, but many people were shopping with their eyes only.
That was true for shopper Sharon Sky in Denver, who said that she was cutting back compared to previous years because "it's just tougher times. It seems as if my dollar doesn't go as far."
Despite high levels of credit card debt, consumers are still expected to charge more than $120 billion between now and Christmas, says RAM Research, a firm that tracks credit card use.
By 10 a.m. Friday, Cynthia Grier of Orange had finished much of her shopping, having bought some $800 worth of clothes, toys and other gifts with cash and credit cards.
Grier, who said she was planning to spend as much as she did last year, did much of her shopping at Robinsons-May, which like many retailers offered discounts of up to 50% on some items purchased between 7:30 a.m. and noon.
The Broadway staged its early-bird promotions from 8 to 11 a.m., offering savings of up to 50%. It's the last holiday season for the Broadway, which was acquired earlier this year by Federated Department Stores, operator of the Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Bullock's chains. Broadway stores will be converted to Macy's next year.
At the Northridge Fashion Center, which reopened in August after extensive earthquake repairs, retailers anxiously awaited indications that this holiday season was getting off to a good start.
By midmorning the main mall corridors were packed. Many shoppers at the mall said they were at last feeling as if their lives were returning to normal after nearly two years of coping with the aftermath of the January, 1994, earthquake.