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Shopping Brisk All Over U.S.; Bargains Rare

Times Staff Writer

Despite raw, drizzly weather with temperatures dipping into the 40s, Southern California shoppers warmed to the idea of spending the day after Thanksgiving at local malls and got the Christmas buying season off to a bracing start.

Elsewhere around the country, unseasonably mild conditions in New York and Chicago brought out hordes of spectators and spenders. A morning radio announcer in Atlanta likened the scene Friday, traditionally the year’s busiest shopping day, to “going to war on a full stomach.”

Across the Southland, powerhouse malls such as South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa and Century City Shopping Center got off to a slower start than usual because of gloomy skies and slippery streets. But by afternoon, as rains died down, the ring of cash registers had begun in earnest.

Shopping in Sweaters

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“I think people stayed in and stayed warm” at first, said Sue Graham, general manager of Bullock’s at South Coast Plaza. “Then things really started to click. They’re all dressed up in warm sweaters and trench coats, but they’re here.”

A driving rainstorm held down morning traffic in the Fashion Valley parking lot in San Diego, a stark contrast to last year when employees were out directing traffic and closing crowded parking areas by noon.

In many cases, stores were crowded, but not necessarily with people eager to spend. Some shoppers who were stalking bargains seemed disappointed at the lack of them.

At Century City Shopping Center, many stores opened an hour or two ahead of their usual starting times to lure in a crowd of early birds, but shoppers only trickled in.

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“We’re expecting a late-afternoon crush,” said Babette Ory, a saleswoman at the upscale mall’s Nature Company store, which was almost devoid of shoppers about 9:30 a.m. She and a co-worker attributed the slow start to chilly, damp weather. By late afternoon, customers were lined up 10 deep to pay for purchases.

Jean and Len Gima of Culver City walked hand in hand but otherwise empty-handed, even though they hoped to wrap up their Christmas shopping Friday. “The sales aren’t that good,” they said matter-of-factly.

Indeed, although stores have been touting the usual weekend-after-Thanksgiving sales, shoppers will not find as many bargains as last year, when merchants got squeezed between oversupplies of unpopular fashions such as miniskirts and customers’ economic concerns after the October, 1987, stock market crash.

After a year of lackluster sales, merchants say, they have planned more cautiously and reined in merchandise supplies so that they can avoid the rampant early price-cutting that characterized last year’s holiday season and undercut retailers’ profits. This year, retailing analysts and merchants foresee sales gains of 4% to 6%, which, after inflation, will amount to a modest 1% to 3%.

A So-So Season

Given the tempered enthusiasm of some shoppers, merchants apparently have guessed correctly with their predictions for a so-so season.

“We’re into quality and not quantity this year,” said Anne Van of Moraga, who was shopping with her husband, Bruce, at Fashion Valley in San Diego. And Sherry Engberg, a San Diego schoolteacher, said her holiday shopping budget will be trimmed because her family’s income isn’t keeping pace with expenses.

“I just looked at a nice cotton sport shirt for my husband that cost $49.95,” she said. “I was thinking it might be about $30. I’m thinking . . . I’ll make things myself at home.”

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Harold Spector, a certified public accountant from North Hollywood who was on a three-day shopping holiday at South Coast Plaza, was more optimistic. “We feel better off this year, so we’ll probably spend about 10% more,” said Spector, who estimated that he and his wife will spend $1,000 for gifts for children and grandchildren.

Bobby Menn of Laguna Hills was buying Hanukkah gifts at Nordstrom in Costa Mesa but, like many others, bemoaned the high prices and seeming lack of real bargains. “Things are a lot higher this year,” she said. “A coat I bought last year is $20 more.

“There were lots of ads in the paper to bring you into the store. But the stuff you want is still very expensive.”

At Mervyn’s department store in Glendale Galleria it was a different story. Eager bargain hunters, bundled up in overcoats, bounded up the escalators after the store opened its doors at 8 a.m--two hours earlier than usual. Parents were soon waiting with their children in lines 20 deep at check-out counters.

For children, Christmas in 1988 does not offer a Cabbage Patch or Teddy Ruxpin “phenom” product, so shoppers were looking for such traditional gifts as Legos and Barbie dolls. A K mart in south Houston sold out of its initial shipment of 30 Nintendo video games at $99 within two hours.

The F.A.O. Schwarz toy store in South Coast Plaza was doing red-hot business in $90 plastic versions of the piano keys that Tom Hanks danced on in the movie “Big.” The videotape of “E.T.” is a strong seller at Music Plus, a chain of video and music stores where recorded videocassette tapes are selling at double year-earlier levels.

Fifth Avenue Shoppers

As might be expected, shoppers along elegant Fifth Avenue in New York seemed able and willing to spend as much as or more than last year on gifts. After a cold Thanksgiving Day, strollers came prepared wearing heavy overcoats, only to unbutton and unzip as a warm sun in cloudless skies raised temperatures to 51 degrees.

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Based on East Coast sales, President Mark S. Handler projected that New York-based R.H. Macy & Co. would meet its target of boosting companywide sales for Friday and today by 10% over sales during the two days after Thanksgiving last year.

Early strong sellers at Macy’s stores, including Bullock’s in Southern California, were jewelry, dresses and lingerie, along with such traditional gift products as china, glass and silver, Handler said. But strong price competition is hurting Macy’s sales of electronics and less expensive lines of sportswear. “The electronics business has not been good around the country for the second year in a row, and we’re taking a pasting in electronics,” he said.

In Chicago, the fall opening of a Bloomingdale’s on North Michigan Avenue gave a shot in the arm to other retailers along the stretch known as the “Magnificent Mile.” Nelson Forrest, executive director of the Greater North Michigan Avenue Assn., a retail trade group, figures the 65-store Bloomingdale’s mall is boosting pedestrian traffic in the area by 10%.

On Friday, radiant sunshine helped boost temperatures into the mid-60s, balmy by Chicago standards, and brought out shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. But many people, particularly out-of-towners, were just gawking at holiday windows, according to Carol Kriebel, a department manager at Carson Pirie Scott & Co. on State Street.

Retailers in the Houston area, undergoing a halting recovery from the oil-related recession, were feeling more upbeat after several years of poor sales.

In the Galleria, the Neiman Marcus specialty store is anticipating double-digit percentage sales gains over last Christmas. “More people are working again, and now they’re coming in spending money,” said Ed Bodde, vice president and general manager. The store has added 60 gift wrappers to its normal staff of six to handle the holiday rush.

Shopping at discount stores was also brisk. Hubert Yeldell, manager of a south Houston K mart store, looked out his store’s windows at 6:30 a.m. to find nearly 100 people waiting for the 7 a.m. opening. K mart saturated the Texas market on Thanksgiving Day with television commercials during the Dallas Cowboys-Houston Oilers football game, touting its extended holiday hours and upgraded image.

While excited over the day’s business, Yeldell was looking forward to bigger returns. “Today may be the first day of the shopping season, but it’s not the busiest,” he said. “We’ll be hopping on Dec. 24.”

Contributing to this story were staff writers James Bates in the San Fernando Valley, Keith Bradsher in New York, Mary Ann Galante in Orange County, Sean Horrigan in Houston, Chris Kraul in San Diego, Lisa Romaine in Denver, Jesus Sanchez in Glendale, Tracy Shryer in Chicago, Edith Stanley in Atlanta and Nancy Yoshihara in Pasadena.


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