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Meaning, Materialism Meet at Mall

Shopping: Retailers pull out stops to counter post-Sept. 11 economy, and buyers respond.

November 24, 2001|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN and GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

With many Americans saying they want to keep their holiday focused more on family than on presents, retailers pulled out all the stops Friday in an effort to lure consumers into stores for the start of the holiday shopping season.

Many stores opened earlier than ever, and most offered steep discounts. Some malls added valet parking, while at least one provided aromatherapy booths to reinvigorate customers.

Kmart greeted shoppers early Thanksgiving Day and planned to keep its stores open around the clock until Sunday evening. One Los Angeles mall even invited a local economist to set up shop in a storefront in a bid to draw TV news coverage.

With the economy weakening and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon still stinging, leading economists are predicting that retail spending will be flat or even lower this season.

The American Express Retail Index, in its survey of consumers, projected average spending of about $1,564 per household for gifts, travel, entertaining, decorations and other expenses. That is down about $120 from 2000, the first decline in about a decade. At the same time, U.S. households plan to spend an average of 10% more on entertaining, American Express found.

A recent Los Angeles Times Poll found that 40% of Americans plan to cut spending in the near term, particularly on big-ticket items.

"There is a reevaluation of past materialism going on," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist for Deloitte & Touche. "People are looking for meaning beyond the things that they purchase and beyond their own lives. That's a huge change."

Some Americans have talked about baking rather than buying gifts this year. Many have established new family traditions of picking names out of a hat so that each person will buy a gift for only one relative; some have agreed with friends and colleagues not to exchange presents at all.

"We're doing a lot more homemade, thoughtful gifts this year because of our finances and because, since Sept. 11, we value those things more--they remind us of family," said 28-year-old Wendy Rogers, who was buying blank videocassette tapes and an indoor grilling unit Friday at a Wal-Mart in Panorama City. "I'm making quilts for my sons for Christmas."

Like Rogers, most shoppers Friday said that what drew them out were discounts and specials.

Big Crowds, Big Bargains

At a Best Buy store in Costa Mesa, more than 300 shoppers waited in line before the sun rose, many with fingers wrapped around steaming coffee cups.

The line, which continued to build an hour after the store opened, was filled with discount-hungry consumers with their noses buried in four-color newspaper circulars promising CD burners marked down to $29.99 from $59.99 and color printers marked down to $19.99 from $59.99.

"We got here at 6," said Cindy Bury, who shopped Friday with children Mimi and Michael. "There are more people here this year than last year, so I don't know if we're going to get what we came for."

Two hours later, the Bury family was unloading a shopping cart full of bargains--including the desired CD burner and the color printer--into the family car before heading to a nearby Target store.

"Why go to mall stores when I can get apparel at Target and Old Navy?" Bury asked. "The only reason to go to a department store is if you want designer stuff."

Darlene Simpson, a 34-year-old mother from Palmdale, stood in the layaway line at the Panorama City Wal-Mart, with a discounted computer in her cart.

"See those silver chains around my daughter's neck?" she asked, pointing at the five necklaces her 13-year-old daughter was wearing. "That was last year. This year, it's more practical stuff she needs."

By 6:30 a.m., hundreds of shoppers were lined up outside the year-old Target Greatland store in Costa Mesa, browsing through dog-eared newspaper advertising supplements that included a $69.99 Audiovox sound system that was marked down to $48. Store manager Tim Kindig knew that the 168 in stock would go quickly, so he had ordered crews to stack the systems at the front of the massive store.

Grace Gonzalez spent Friday morning searching the racks at a TJ Maxx store in Canoga Park for outfits for two young nieces. But she has crossed eight teenage relatives off her list this year. The 34-year-old physical therapy aide's holiday budget slipped to $300 from $750 last year. "I told them that Christmas is for the little ones," Gonzalez said.

Store operators said they were trying to oblige shoppers' demands for value.

'Increasingly Savvy Shoppers'

The trendy Paseo Colorado mall, entering its first holiday season, hoped to spark shopper interest by dangling $50 gift certificates redeemable at the center's Gelson's grocery store in front of people who spend $400 during a single shopping day.

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