Months of Planning Come to End as Glendale Galleria Packs 'Em In

Times Staff Writer

To Warren Hui, holiday gift buying inevitably means a last-minute push at the Glendale Galleria, and this year was no exception. The 27-year-old accountant, who lives near downtown Los Angeles, arrived at the giant mall a little after 8 a.m. Saturday, before most shops had even opened, and had just about wrapped things up by 3 p.m.

Loaded down with seven shopping bags, Hui sighed as he leaned against a brick planter. "I usually wait till the last weekend," he said with a grin, undaunted by the crowds surging past him.

Retailers across the country had their fingers crossed that millions of shoppers like Hui would turn out the last weekend before Christmas to boost sales in an otherwise lackluster season. For many merchants, this holiday season, characterized by economic uncertainty and cautious spending, has been tougher to call than most, and shoppers are reaping the benefits in the form of steep markdowns as retailers scramble to cut their losses.

Since Thanksgiving, economists and retail analysts have noted that this Christmas opera won't be over until the last receipts have been counted. It will be a typical 11th-hour ending for a season that in recent years has developed a pattern of going down to the wire.

"These days are the most important," said Edward F. Johnson, a retail analyst with Johnson Redbook Service in New York, of the Saturday and Sunday before Christmas. "The consumer holds off and has been buying closer and closer to Christmas."

If the Glendale Galleria can serve as a microcosm for the nation's thousands of other malls, merchants could rest a little easier on one count: The crowds were there on the weekend, all right. But many in the throngs were strolling empty-handed. And the lines at cash registers seemed short.

Even so, Steve Schreiber, Nordstrom's general manager, said Sunday that the store was exceeding its planned sales for the weekend and the season as a whole. "As merchants, we always have the tendency to say, 'Oh, yeah, Christmas is later this year,' " he said. "But the actual trends show that our season is stacking up very well against last season and the season before that."

By all accounts, Nordstrom--using first-class customer service as a draw--has been a big boon to the Glendale Galleria. Jane Higa, a San Gabriel resident shopping Saturday with her husband and two small children, said, "Often, we'll come to this mall just for Nordstrom."

$300 Million in Sales

Nordstrom, which opened as part of a new wing in 1983, has proved a key element in efforts by developer Donahue Schriber to upgrade the tenant mix. As malls go, the Glendale Galleria is larger and more successful than most. Situated downtown, the mall represents a dramatic transformation of a once troubled area. It encompasses 34.5 acres and 1.4 million square feet of selling space, warranting its own police substation and even its own ZIP code (91210).

Among Los Angeles and Orange county malls, the Galleria, with nearly $300 million in 1986 retail sales, ranks behind only South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance.

Using funds collected from merchants, the mall spends heavily in November and December on Christmas-related promotions and charities. But long about mid-December, shoppers will see little in the way of live holiday entertainment, aside from Santa Claus. "We want to have people shopping instead of standing and looking," said Wendy Nobile, marketing director.

As with other shopping centers, the Christmas season at Glendale Galleria begins months before the holiday shopping does. Way back in February, the mall reserved four live reindeer from Steve Martin's Working Wildlife in Acton, Calif. On the day after Thanksgiving, the reindeer hauled Santa Claus' sleigh into the mall in a 30-minute parade.

Between July and September, the mall lined up bands, drill teams, Girl Scout troops and other participants for "Santa's Arrival Parade." The event, which has been held for the last four years to usher in the holiday season, cost about $13,000.

Also during the summer, the mall started making arrangements with the Los Angeles Zoo--as it has for the past three years--to allow holiday mall patrons to park at the zoo and take a free shuttle bus to the Galleria, a couple of miles to the east across Interstate 5. The service enables shoppers to avoid the headache of circling the mall's 6,162-space multilevel parking structures.

In that regard, the Glendale Galleria, like so many others in the Southland, is a victim of its own success. Parking is a hassle, especially at Christmastime, when the mall population of 3,000 employees swells to 5,000 and customer traffic increases by tens of thousands.

Months of Planning

At the end of August, the center ordered 25,000 Christmas shopping bags featuring a stylized dove in a white, black and gold design. They arrived in early November and have been handed out free to mall patrons.

On Nov. 1, workers started stringing 30,000 white lights throughout the mall, and the next week, 2,000 feet of garlands were hung. A couple of days before Thanksgiving, all that was left to do in the way of decoration was to sprinkle snow around Santa's area in front of J. C. Penney.

Despite the months of planning, this holiday season has held some surprises for mall officials. For example, they prepared for a hectic day on Saturday the 12th, only to have a dismal turnout.

Since its 1976 opening, the galleria has had a major financial and, some would argue, psychological influence on Glendale. Blessed with a prime location near several freeways, the Glendale Galleria draws from an area with a total population of about 700,000. The mall now has 250 stores, nearly twice the number of many other large regional centers.

"It is one of three powerhouse malls in Southern California," said Jack A. Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.

Having begun with a tenant mix that was repetitive--replete with similar shoe stores and jewelry boutiques--the mall lately has been in a more upscale mode. The addition of Nordstrom and the rest of a new wing in 1983 prompted some pricier stores to come on board. Koala Blue, Laura Ashley, BBC 1 and several European fashion boutiques are among recent additions. Remodelings by Buffums, J. C. Penney and others have helped, too. Mall management is still figuring out how to allocate a large space abandoned earlier this year by the defunct Ohrbach's chain.

The mall also accounts for the vast majority of the city's retail sales, last year bringing in $300 million of the total $370 million rung up by the city's merchants. Of that amount, the city reaps 1%.

Disney's Choice

"It has helped downtown revitalize and gain considerable strength," said Susan Shick, deputy executive director of the Glendale Redevelopment Agency. The agency is drumming up support for a Galleria III expansion that would focus on high-fashion stores. Among retailers that reportedly have voiced interest are Macy's, Neiman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.

The mall's success was one factor that prompted Walt Disney Co. to locate its first Disney Store there. The outlet sells clothing and other items featuring Disney cartoon characters.

"It's an extremely successful regional shopping center, it is an attractive and well-maintained mall . . . and it's close enough to our Burbank studios that we can keep an eye on it. For a test store that's important," said Stephen B. Burke, vice president and general manager of the Disney Store.

In this, the store's first holiday season, "Christmas started early and has built to the point where we literally are having trouble keeping stuff on the shelf," Burke said. "During the day, it's a mad rush to keep things on the shelves."

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