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Thousands Rush to 80 Stores : Bargain Hunters Jam Gemcos for Last Sale

Times Staff Writer

Sharon Brown deftly maneuvered a shopping cart brimming with toys past racks laden with women’s coats into an aisle stacked with children’s clothing. She snatched two boys’ shirts from a rack and flung them on top of the pile in her cart.

Next she pushed her way over to the girls’ underwear and plucked a package of size 8 panties that are much too large for her 3-year-old daughter. “It’s okay. She’ll grow into them,” reasoned Brown, 33, as she plopped them in her cart and turned her attention to the socks.

Then she reached for a red knit pullover, punching the price into her calculator to figure the 15% discount. "$9.99!” she shrieked. “That’s too much. I’ll come back if the prices go lower.”

The Gemco discount store chain is going out of business, and on Thursday it started a two-month liquidation sale. Thousands of shoppers rushed to the 80 Gemcos in San Diego, other cities in California, Arizona and Nevada. Brown went to the Gemco in Culver City, normally the busiest store in the chain.

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Stores Crowded

Some stores were so crowded that by mid-afternoon shoppers were turned away because of fire laws that limit occupancy, said Sam Nassi, who is liquidating Gemco. Nassi said the Gemco merchandise was worth $400 million at wholesale prices, making it the biggest liquidation sale ever in the West. That compares to the record $1-billion liquidation of the W.T. Grant chain in 1975.

The 27-year-old Gemco chain is being closed by its owner, Lucky Stores, as part of a massive corporate restructuring intended to deter a $1.89-billion takeover attempt by New York investor Asher B. Edelman. On Thursday, Lucky’s board of directors rejected for a second time an offer by Edelman to buy the Dublin, Calif., company.

The liquidation sale was the first time that shoppers who weren’t Gemco members were permitted in the store. That was underscored Thursday in the Culver City Gemco as a voice on the store loudspeaker welcomed “members and guests” to Gemco. The chain had sold memberships for $1, which presumably allowed members to shop at Gemco for life.

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That deal ended last week, and now thousands of shoppers skipped work for a few hours on Thursday to buy, among other things, toys, clothes, tools and books at a 15% discount.

At Gemco’s Escondido store, some shoppers experienced hour-long waits at cash registers. Employees attempted to control the crowds by making some shoppers wait outside until others inside had finished.

Parking was so congested at the store that some found it more convenient to park their vehicles at a nearby K mart. Other Gemco stores throughout San Diego also reported heavy shopper volume, which at times caused traffic jams on streets leading to the stores.

At Gemco’s Culver City store, bargain hunters guided their shopping carts through the crowded aisles as if in a roller derby. The pace slowed to a crawl at the checkouts, where shoppers stood 10-deep before noontime waiting to pay for their bargains.

Long Lines

And those lines were nothing compared to what developed later as they stretched deep into the store’s aisles and snaked around racks of sweat shirts and cookware. “It’s one of the best openings in our history,” proclaimed Nassi, who said he had handled 80% of the major retail liquidations.

Gemco’s liquidation presents some unusual problems. For one thing, Nassi said, a large amount of merchandise is being sold through a relatively small number of outlets. Each Gemco store is selling $5 million in merchandise, compared to $1 million for each store involved in the W.T. Grant liquidation.

Nassi faces time pressure, too. He agreed to complete the sales before Christmas so that 54 of the stores can be transferred to their new owner, Minneapolis retailer Dayton-Hudson Co., which plans to convert them to Target discount stores by mid-1987. Normally, a liquidation of Gemco’s size would take three months, Nassi said.

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As a result, Nassi has taken a few steps to sell the goods quickly. The number of cash registers in each store has been doubled, he says, to reduce the time a customer spends waiting in line. He also puts two price tags on each item. “This way if a tag falls off, the customer doesn’t have to wait at the checkout and hold up the line while the clerk gets the price,” he says.

Shoppers cruised about the Culver City store on Thursday, pausing to paw through racks of pastel sweat suits and polyester dresses. Bargain hunters swooped armfuls of deodorant, shampoo and aspirin into their carts as they passed by the toiletries. “I’ll use them eventually,” said one shopper, as the containers rattled in her cart.

On Mission

Geraldine Anthony of Culver City was a woman on a mission. Not one to waste time, she stopped by the Gemco last week to see if it was stocked with things she wanted to buy. “It didn’t make sense to come here if they don’t have what I want,” she said.

On Thursday she loaded her cart with oversize bed pillows, a toilet seat, bathroom accessories and a globe. She admitted that she didn’t intend to buy the globe. “I need it,” she explained. “I travel a lot.”

Over in the toy aisle, 7-year-old Lataicha Norris was negotiating with her grandmother, Willie Lewis. Lataicha knew she wanted a Barbie doll, in fact, she wanted them all. She darted from doll to doll, one in a spacesuit, one in a designer gown, one with a tan.

The time had come to force a decision. “You have to tell me which one,” said Lewis, an East Los Angeles resident. “We’re leaving.”

Lataicha picked the Barbie with a dress that glows in the dark, and bounced alongside her grandmother to the checkout. Lewis, 55, also bought sheets, towels and Halloween candy. “Nothing I need,” she said.

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It was busy for Gemco employees, all of whom were hired by Nassi for the sale. They followed behind shoppers, picking up bath towels from the floor, and filling empty shelf spaces with such things as motor oil.

Times staff writer Tim Waters contributed to this story from San Diego.


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