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Bargain Hunters Stalk Aisles

The search for holiday gifts this year starts at discount stores as customers are more mindful of prices and the economy.

November 30, 2002|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

If the opening day of the holiday shopping season is any guide, this year could end up being a "Costco Christmas."

Bargain-hungry Southern Californians swarmed the region's stores Friday, guided largely by a sense of practicality that had thousands rising before sunrise to snap up the best deals on a wide array of gifts.

Jana Flaig of Westminster does research on products she wants at other stores but makes her purchases at Costco, where she joined thousands of other shoppers early Friday in Fountain Valley.

"When it comes time to buy, I come here to save the money," said the 53-year-old college instructor. "Getting name brands at a discount price is a duty."

Flaig's no-nonsense attitude seemed to be the theme of the day. Shoppers in Southern California and across the country sent clear signals that price matters, even when it comes to holiday gifts.

Indeed, eight of 10 consumers queried in a recent American Express survey said they would do some shopping at mass merchandisers this year. And 86% said their shopping decisions would be driven by what items were on sale.

Those results aren't surprising given that the uncertain economy is on many shoppers' minds.

Pam Martin, 52, of West Los Angeles said pocketbook concerns made her more cautious about spending money and more likely to buy gifts at discount stores and other money-saving outlets.

"Who cares about the Macy's box or the Bloomingdale's box?" said Martin, an associate director of financial aid at UCLA, who was shopping at the Target store on La Cienega Boulevard. "We all went through that stage. But with everything going on in the world, we're all more aware of what we're doing and not being wasteful."

Having six fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year also prodded folks into stores Friday.

"People who view the Christmas buying season as starting on the day after Thanksgiving are going to get panicked," fearing that they have too little time to shop, said Richard Giss, an analyst with Deloitte & Touche.

Certainly, there was no shortage of people in stores Friday, although mall traffic nationwide has been weak throughout the year. With more stores opening early for so-called door-busters -- markdowns on items intended to lure early birds -- consumers filled shopping centers earlier this year than last.

And they weren't there to look, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., who for the second year in a row visited Westside Pavilion in Los Angeles to observe shoppers on opening day of the season.

"Definitely people were carrying a lot more bags than they did last year," he said. "People were literally dragging bags full of toys" out of the mall's KB Toys store.

Glendale Galleria appeared to be having one of the busiest traffic days in the last nine years, said Jackie Fernandez, a retail expert with Deloitte & Touche. "It could be a little panic setting in," she said, due to the smaller number of shopping days.

Although the day after Thanksgiving is not the busiest shopping day of the year in terms of sales -- that's the Saturday before Christmas -- it is an important day for retailers, who hope to snag shoppers early and encourage them to revisit the store by Dec. 25.

Last year, the day after Thanksgiving was the sixth-busiest sales-generating day of the season. The weekend accounted for 8.4% of last year's holiday sales, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

It was too soon to tell whether the nation's retailers were on track to outperform last year's results; sales estimates and other data won't be available until next week. Experts have predicted that national retail sales will rise 4% this season, which would be the smallest increase in five years.

Across the country, observers said bargains and special discounts were driving shoppers into malls and stores.

Sharply discounted prices Friday attracted so many shoppers to Fry's Electronics in Fountain Valley that the store reached its maximum capacity of almost 1,500 people an hour after opening, prompting fire officials to ask store managers to control the crowd by making arriving customers wait in line outside, a store spokesman said.

At the Wal-Mart in Panorama City, the line began forming about 11 p.m. Thursday, growing to about 300 people by the time the store opened at 6 a.m.

Kathleen Hamm staked out her place in line at 5 a.m. Friday so she could snag a $698 Hewlett-Packard computer. "I prayed about that one," said Hamm, a special education assistant in her 30s who lives in Panorama City.

She also picked up some sweats, toys, games and an array of $5 household gadgets, such as an electric knife that she'd "been dying for."

Overall, Hamm said, she is spending less this year "because of the economy in general." To make sure she can buy presents for everyone on her long list, Hamm said, she always shops the early-bird specials.

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