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Neither Rain nor Snow Stop Yule Shoppers

Times Staff Writer

Despite soggy, blustery weather in many parts of the country, shoppers showed up in droves Friday, as retailers kicked off their traditional Christmas shopping season with early store openings and special promotions.

“It was as if somebody shot off a starter’s gun at 10 o’clock,” said Wayne Adcoe, assistant general manager of the tony Galleria mall in Houston. “The place is absolutely jammed.”

From Macy’s in New York to South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, crowds of high-spirited shoppers started arriving as early as 7 a.m. Although the industry’s doom-and-gloomers had feared that Santa would drop a lump of coal into retailers’ stockings this year in the form of disappointing sales, many merchants seemed encouraged Friday by free-spending customers.

Heavy rains kept some shoppers away from Southland malls until late morning, but once they got there, they “definitely appeared to be in a buying mood,” said Maura Eggan, South Coast Plaza’s marketing director. Although the huge mall normally sees 20,000 to 25,000 customers on a weekday, Eggan estimated that Friday’s traffic would top 40,000--about the same as in years past for the busiest shopping day of the year.

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The Mission Viejo Mall had 60,000 customers by 5 p.m. Friday, about 8,000 more than at the same time last year, according to general manager Dick Sundt.

“Because it was pouring, I think things were a little slow at first, but by 10 a.m. they were flooding in here and by 11 a.m., the place was jammed,” Sundt said. “We’re swamped. I don’t think there is a parking place as far as I can see.”

No Parking

At San Diego’s Mission Valley Center and the newly opened Horton Plaza, indoor parking spots were filled by 10 a.m., and latecomers were vainly circling to find empty spots.

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“If anything, rainy weather helps us,” said Lesley Binder, director of marketing at Horton Plaza, which opened Aug. 9. “On a sunny day, shopping centers compete with attractions like the San Diego Zoo, a day at the beach or water skiing on Mission Bay.”

In Minneapolis, which had three to four inches of snow and below-zero temperatures, “it wasn’t the kind of weather that drives people out of their houses, and, even if it does, their cars don’t start,” said George Hite, a spokesman for Dayton Hudson’s Target division, a chain of discount stores.

“I suspect we’d be doing more business if the weather cooperated,” he said.

Hite said weather dampened sales in the upper Midwest but that stores in Texas and California had “encouraging” results.

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Dayton Hudson’s department store division, also based in Minneapolis, opened stores at 8 a.m., instead of the usual 9:30, and ran special promotions with “very good” results, spokesman Tom Langenfeld said.

“It looks like a nice start to the Christmas season--and it had better be, with six fewer days,” he said.

Even though they started wooing shoppers weeks ago with heavy promotions, merchants have bemoaned the fact that the traditional selling period is six days shorter this year than last, because Thanksgiving fell at the tail end of the month. Although Friday’s preliminary figures were encouraging, none seemed eager to revise upward their projections that the industry will show only modest gains of 5% to 7% for the fourth quarter as compared to last year’s period.

However, two big differences distinguish the retailing environment this year from last, when retailers started drastic price cutting early in the holiday season. Having learned a harsh lesson in 1984, stores have been more careful in their purchases and have kept better track of inventories.

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Key Factor

As a result, while bargains will be plentiful, they will not put merchants’ profits as much at risk. Retailers view that as a key factor in a season that often accounts for more than half their annual profits.

Customers appear to be paying keen attention to prices. At the Broadway store in downtown Los Angeles, Bill Preston bought an armload of women’s garments for family and friends. Preston, a journalism major at USC, said he drove all the way from Long Beach to take advantage of what he saw as better sales than at his local malls.

“The sales are incredible,” he said. “Especially now with the holidays coming and the dollars being short, you’ve just got to do it.”

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For others, money was less of an object. At Sherman Oaks Galleria, Charles Fontaine of Canoga Park said he would buy practical things for his family for Hanukkah, which begins Dec. 7.

However, his wife, Barbara, laughed. “He just bought me a mink,” she said. “The economy is better, and so we’re buying fun things.”

Easy to Find

However, at one store where bargains were as easy to find as beer at a barbecue, early signs proved disappointing. The family-owned Sakowitz specialty store in Houston was hoping for history-making crowds this Christmas, which observers see as a make-or-break period for the financially troubled chain. But two hours after the 10 a.m. opening, the parking lot was less than half full. Some shoppers might have been deterred by cold mist and slippery roads.

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Although most merchants said it was too soon to release figures, generally they indicated that sales were strong. Carter Hawley Hale Stores, the Los Angeles-based parent of the Broadway, Neiman-Marcus and Emporium Capwell, had strong business across the country. However, “we want to get further into the Christmas season before we determine whether we have to make any adjustments,” spokesman Bill Dombrowski said. The retailer has been geared for a season punctuated by heavy promotions and stiff competition.

At Beverly Center in Los Angeles, spokeswoman Gayle Kantro projected that the mall’s sales would be 20% ahead of those on the day after Thanksgiving last year. The mall’s parking attendants and valets parked 21,000 cars Friday, 17% more than last year.

Suburban Malls

In Miami, nice weather brought lots of shoppers to suburban malls and stores. One K mart, which like other stores in the chain opened at 7 a.m., benefited from its nearness to Miami International Airport.

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“We get a lot of island traffic--people from Barbados and Trinidad,” said Walter Holbrook, the store’s manager. “They go straight to our luggage department and buy the largest suitcase they can find. They pack the things as we’re checking them out, and then they call a taxi and go right back to the airport.”

However, the Omni Mall in downtown Miami appeared to be no busier than normal. The biggest lines were for the center’s theaters, which were showing such films as “King Solomon’s Mines” and the ubiquitous “Rambo.”

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Alan Goldstein and Nancy Rivera in Los Angeles, Greg Johnson in San Diego, Robert Hanley in Orange County, Lorna Nones in Miami, Joanne Harrison in Houston, Dallas Jamison in Denver, Siobhan Flynn in New York and Stephanie Droll in Detroit.


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