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Wrapped Around a Bargain

Shopping season begins with a typical frenzy as buyers chase deals at every price level, from Rodeo Drive to the 99 Cents Only store.

November 29, 2003|Leslie Earnest, Meg James and Claire Luna | Times Staff Writers

Seeking bargains at any price, consumers kicked off the official start of the holiday shopping season Friday, snapping up comforters at Kmart and trinkets from Tiffany's.

The scene across Southern California told a tale of two economies. Many people were obviously ready to spend more than they did last year, while others, out of work or worried about the future, were holding back. But whether they were spending a lot or a little, they were on the hunt for deals.

In Beverly Hills, scores of women jammed into the Enzo Angiolini store, where leather boots were marked down as much as 50%. Brooks Bros. sold out its inventory of camel-colored cashmere scarves priced at $98 each.

"We cannot keep them in stock," said Brooks Bros. general manager James W. Jahant. "Customers are buying our non-iron shirts, men's and women's, in quantities -- four to eight apiece."

In West Covina, Gabriella Ortiz, 32, was in a queue outside Robinsons-May at 5:45 a.m. in hopes of being one of 300 customers to get a $15 gift card when the doors opened at 6 a.m. The Baldwin Park resident has been out of a job since February when her employer, a plastics manufacturer, closed.

"I'm spending less this year, by a lot," Ortiz said. "That's the reason I'm standing here."

By 6:05 a.m. the gift cards were gone, and Ortiz had missed out. But that didn't dissuade her from continuing her mission to find discount linens and other household items on sale.

"Consumers are value-conscious right now. That means quality, it means selection and, of course it means price," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation, the industry's largest trade group. "There are deals, even on the high end."

But it was the prestige of Tiffany & Co. that brought Gary Miles, 25, to Beverly Hills. The computer programmer from Hollywood was shopping for his girlfriend of nearly two years at the tony jeweler at Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard. Tiffany's offers a "safe" selection, he said, sure to please her.

"Christmas only comes once a year, and if I went somewhere cheap it wouldn't look too good," he said, adding he would be spending about $400.

Overall, Beverly Hills retailers said they expected a double-digit increase over last year's holiday season, particularly after a robust September and November. October was a little out of sync, but store managers attributed that to Southern California's wildfires.

In fact, many people who braved the crowds Friday said they were already ringing up big bills.

Jim Boldrick, 65, was one. The oil industry lawyer from Dana Point was at Neiman-Marcus in the Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach, waiting for a clerk to help him buy a $200 Faberge egg for his daughter-in-law and Waterford letter openers and other crystal knickknacks for his office staff and various friends.

Boldrick said he planned to spend about $1,000 on Friday. "When I have a good year," he said, "it's important to be generous."

As for Glenn Grandis, he started his day at Sears in Costa Mesa, where he bought $10 halogen lamps and $10 air gauges to give as presents. Then it was on to Best Buy, where the 39-year-old computer system installer, who lives in Fountain Valley, waited in a line that wrapped around the store three times to pick up children's software for relatives.

At Fry's Electronics, his third stop, he bought himself a little something: a $1,899 computer, monitor and printer. "I came in, got in line and asked one of the employees to fetch it for me so I wouldn't waste any time," Grandis said.

A number of Southland malls reported strong traffic, but, according to Richard Giss, a retail consultant at Deloitte & Touche, it was slower than usual for the day after Thanksgiving.

"Discounters, on the other hand, are doing very well," he said, because they have aggressively cut prices.

The Kmart in Costa Mesa offered cards to the first 100 people in line that would erase $1 to $100 from the prices of their purchases. Suzette Price was the first in line when the store opened at 6 a.m.

"I'm a rookie -- this is my first year doing this," said Price, a 31-year-old office manager from Costa Mesa. "I don't really know what I'm looking for."

That didn't stop her from grabbing an armload of VHS tapes, including "Frosty the Snowman" and "Christmas Pups," at 88 cents each. Set to pay $12.27 at the register, Price learned that her card was worth $25 -- so she made a U-turn to grab a $12.49 comforter.

Nearby, 62-year-old Sve Symonds, a retiree from Costa Mesa, collected earrings.

"How can you go wrong -- $13.99 for 14-carat gold and blue sapphire?" she asked, showing off her bounty: a shopping bag filled with little boxes.

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