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By Dawn's Light, the Spending Begins

Area merchants reduce prices and extend hours, getting holiday buying off to a strong start.

November 30, 2002|Tracy Wilson | Times Staff Writer

Unfazed by forecasts of damp weather and a gloomy economy, Ventura County shoppers descended on discount stores and malls Friday on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Some bargain hunters arrived before dawn, clutching checkbooks and ready to grab discounted items ranging from bikes to Barbies, toasters to treadmills, DVDs to large-screen TVs.

In Oxnard, about 3,000 rapacious shoppers lined up outside a Wal-Mart store.

Once inside, they loaded shopping carts with electronics, toys and bed linens, jamming the aisles and occasionally snarling at one another amid the crush of consumers.

"They're all nuts," said Melisa Williams of Camarillo, who ducked down an uncrowded aisle after picking up two $48 DVD players. "A bunch of crazy people, that's what we are."

The craziness was good news for anxious retailers. Last year, holiday sales faltered nationwide as many Americans turned away from spending after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and braced for an uncertain economic future.

With a shorter holiday season this year, retailers have reduced prices and extended hours in hopes of invigorating holiday purchases, which typically account for 25% of their annual sales.

In Camarillo, the Gap outlet store plans to stay open for 72 hours straight, beginning at 5 a.m. Friday and operating until 1 a.m. Sunday.

Wal-Mart will keep its doors open until midnight between now and Christmas. Stores at the Pacific View Mall in Ventura and The Oaks in Thousand Oaks will stay open until 10 p.m.

Hoping to ease traffic congestion and keep shoppers in a spending mood, The Oaks also plans to shuttle its 500 employees to and from the mall to help free up parking spots.

"The holiday season is always very important to all retailers," said Cris Bremner, marketing manager for The Oaks. "This is the season when the bulk of the business is done, and after last year, it is even more important."

Economists say the post-Thanksgiving rush is a key indicator of consumer confidence as retailers enter the crucial holiday season.

In Camarillo, confidence appeared high as shoppers jammed the parking lots and endured long lines to take advantage of early-bird discounts.

At the Coach store, women cradled armloads of reduced-price leather purses, wallets and gloves, waiting for more than an hour to reach a cash register.

Nearby, dozens of shoppers waited in line just to get inside the Tommy Hilfiger store, where large red signs advertised 30% to 50% discounts.

With 120 stores in two sections, the Camarillo Premium Outlets have generated about $6.5 million in sales tax proceeds for the city since it opened eight years ago.

And the stores continue to draw shoppers from across Southern California.

On Friday, retail warriors Alexandra Jimenez and Zelina Medina drove north from Los Angeles in search of bargains. They planned to hit Guess and Bebe and were resolute in the face of the shopping mob.

"Honestly, I like the battle," Jimenez said of fighting the crowds. "It's just fun."

Settling into a long line outside the Tommy Hilfiger store, Oxnard resident LetyMartinez said she was willing to brave an hourlong or more wait to buy discounted jeans and shirts.

Martinez estimated that she has already saved $300 by shopping at the outlets and by taking advantage of other post-Thanksgiving sales.

Regardless of the hassle, she said, "It's worth it."

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