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Bargains are a big draw at L.A. County Fair

Shopping is topped only by food as the most popular reason that 1.3 million people venture to the Fairplex in Pomona.

September 11, 2009|Hugo Martin

The aroma of deep-fried chicken and funnel cakes drifted across the Los Angeles County fairgrounds. The gleeful shouts of teenagers on carnival rides filled the air.

But Kyle De La Cruz and his sister Jenny did not come to the fair for high-cholesterol treats or carnival thrills. They came to shop.

The siblings arrived early last weekend to find a deal on a barbecue island they would share at their adjoining homes in Glendale. And they got it. The salesman, selling spas, hot tubs and outdoor kitchens under a tall awning, cut $1,000 off the price of a $5,000 barbecue and even offered free shipping.

"We want this umbrella too," Jenny De La Cruz insisted, pointing to a red umbrella shading the display grill.

"Whatever color you want," the salesman offered.

With the global economic calamity putting a chokehold on consumer spending, merchants of cars, boats, cookware, swimming pools and so much more arrived at the Los Angeles County Fair this year, motivated to get recession-weary visitors spending again. And shoppers like the De La Cruzes were pushing for bargains.

Located at the Fairplex in Pomona, the fair is the mega-mall of sales venues, boasting nearly half a million square feet of vending space. That equals the sales areas at the Orange County Fair, the San Diego County Fair and the California State Fair in Sacramento combined. Last year, nearly 1,500 vendors generated about 15% of Los Angeles County Fair's $32 million in annual revenue.

For the 1.3 million people who visited the fair last year, shopping was the second-most popular reason for attending, topped only by the fair's food and drinks, according to a 2008 survey of nearly 12,000 fairgoers. Shopping even surpassed carnival rides and concerts among the top reasons for attending the fair, according to the survey.

This year, vendors and fair organizers hope the recession won't dampen that sentiment.

"If I hear someone say 'the economy' and 'the recession' one more time, I'll go crazy," said Jim Galpin, who was at the fair selling patio furniture for Custom Spas Direct.

Still, Galpin believes consumers are ready to spend. He predicted he would sell more merchandise during the four weeks of the fair than he could sell in six months in a store.

After all, Galpin added, where else can a small-business owner get exposure to 1.3 million customers?

To boost sales, fair organizers opened the fair five days early this year, launching on the three-day Labor Day weekend, which drew 265,000 visitors. Vendors who reserved spots at the fair before Dec. 15 got 23 days of sales for the same price as last year's 18-day fair. The fair runs until Oct. 4 but is closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Commercial vendors pay a flat rate for space, ranging from a small, 10-by-10-foot booth for $2,500 to a 2,000-square-foot area for $40,000. Food peddlers and carnival ride operators, on the other hand, pay a percentage of their sales, which are confirmed by regular cash register audits.

Fair vendors include merchants from local shops and roving dealers who travel across the country, hauling their merchandise from fair to fair.

Merchants say they can offer discounts of up to 45% compared with store prices because of lower overhead costs and because their merchandise often includes last year's models and manufacturer specials.

Take, for example, Los Angeles residents Tracy and Terence Phillips, who were at the fair looking at a pair of 2008 Yamaha WaveRunner jet skis selling for $15,000, along with a trailer.

The price seemed like a bargain, the couple said, but they wanted to think about it. Bobby Hwang, the salesman for Bert's Mega Mall, an outdoor recreational vehicle outlet, warned them that the skis were the last of the 2008 models. "They may not be here tomorrow," he said. The 2009 models sell for about $2,300 more at the Bert's Mega Mall store in Covina, Hwang said.

The couple took Hwang's business card, promising to return to buy the jet skis later.

"We come to the fair all of the time for home improvement and remodeling products," Tracy Phillips said. "You get the best deals at the fair."

At a space a few yards away, Dan Worden, the owner of Eden Outdoor Living in Cameron Park, watched as fairgoers lingered around his patio furniture sets, displayed in the shadow of a 140-foot-high bungee-jumping crane.

Worden began his business three years ago, but this was his first year at the L.A. County Fair. "I heard it was a great fair to be at," he said. "If I sell 40 sets of furniture here I'll be happy."

Eddie Secard, vice president of Secard Pools and Spas, is already sold on the fair.

His company has been selling at the county fair for 20 years. He said he could capitalize on the downturn in the economy by offering above-ground swimming pools at a fraction of the cost of in-ground pools. "No one has enough money for a $50,000 backyard pool right now," he said.

But some shoppers were still apprehensive.

Bruce Coyle, a doctor from Rancho Cucamonga, was at the fair with his wife and children, looking at a $14,000 outdoor barbecue island with a built-in television.

He called the price reasonable and inspected the island, inside and out.

But when it came time to take out his checkbook, Coyle backed down. "I'm just pricing right now," he said as he strolled away from the grills.


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