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After-Christmas Crush : Malls Fill Up Again for Sales and Travails

Times Staff Writer

Stan and Mitzi Eisenberg of Santa Monica hit the shopping decks running on the crisp, sunny morning after Christmas, showing up at Westside Pavilion before the 8 o’clock opening. By 9:20, they were heading home, laden with shirts, pants and shoes from the mob scene that was Nordstrom’s semiannual men’s sale.

Outside, though, it was warfare. In the crowded parking lot, two frantic-looking women courted trouble by standing in a space to hold it for a friend while an angry Volvo driver kept inching her way in.

Throughout Southern California, similar scenes were repeated time and again Monday as shoppers on holiday from offices and factories went prowling for post-Christmas bargains and braved return counters to remedy poor gift choices. At malls and stores, healthy turnouts buoyed merchants’ spirits after a holiday season in which it frequently proved tough to garner even modest sales gains over the year before.

Quest for Parking Space

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In some cases, though, the pace at stores and malls appeared a bit less frenetic than merchants might have liked. In fact, at one Orange County shopping center, parking, normally a challenge on the day after Christmas, was a breeze.

By 10:30, however, the signs of a big day were evident at Fox Hills Mall in Culver City. Desperate motorists had begun stalking shoppers coming out of stores in hopes of sliding into their parking spots. They had to cope with some early bird shoppers, such as Diann Miller of Inglewood, who were a little slow in remembering where their cars were once the lot got jammed.

Miller is in good shape for next Christmas. She picked up four large rolls of gift wrap, four boxes of greeting cards, assorted tree ornaments and a brass candle holder shaped like an angel. “Most of this I got at half price,” she said. “This is the only time I buy this stuff.”

At May Co., things were getting a bit harried on the third floor as shoppers rummaging through Christmas merchandise made a mess of the displays. Customers waited 10 deep at the register.

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The major stores in the mall had prepared for customers returning gifts with large “Returns Only” signs over some registers. But demand seemed light early on. One woman eyed the exchange register while going through a rack of 30%-off blouses at the Broadway. Declining to give her name, she said she was trying to decide whether to exchange a white blouse with a big bow that her mother had given her for “something a little more interesting.”

In Costa Mesa, bargain-hunters at midday had freeway off-ramps blocked for about a mile as they pushed toward South Coast Plaza, where parking lots were gridlocked.

Big Crowd for Big Sale

The crush started early, with customers showing up about 7:15 a.m. outside Bullock’s, which had heavily advertised its post-Christmas sale. “It was the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen,” said a store spokeswoman, estimating the mob outside one door alone at 300. “We couldn’t see the sunlight.”

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One reason, she said, is that sales this year were on the final day of a three-day weekend. With wall-to-wall shoppers by noon, the store expected to end this holiday season with a double-digit increase in sales over last year. “We’re rocking and rolling--and ringing up sales,” the spokeswoman said.

The scene was much less frenzied at Newport Center/Fashion Island, where prime parking spaces could still be found by early afternoon. The Newport Beach mall, which has been undergoing extensive remodeling for the past two years, seemed almost peaceful, except in the major stores’ holiday gift wrap departments.

Bullocks Wilshire and Buffums “added a lot (of sale merchandise) today,” said Betsy Healey of Newport Beach. But “at Robinson’s and the Broadway, it’s negligible. Stuff already was on sale by Christmas.”

The mid-morning mood at Topanga Plaza in Canoga Park was mellow as suburban shoppers streamed in. The parking lot, aisles and escalators were packed, but it was controlled frenzy, with package-laden customers even bothering to say “excuse me” as they squeezed past one another.

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Buying Cards, Wrapping

There, too, some of the biggest lines were at checkout desks for Christmas cards and wrappings. “You save half the price,” noted Cindy Arnesen of Chatsworth, shopping at the Broadway. “We come here every year.”

Charles Deichert, the store manager, said it appeared to be “an average day-after-Christmas Day in the store.” Nattily dressed in a gray suit and yellow tie, Deichert was on the sales floor, directing customers to various departments.

“We recognize that no one likes to come into a crowded store and return merchandise,” he said. “It’s a bother. We try to make it as pleasant an experience as possible.”

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Upstairs in women’s jewelry, Russell Silver was so mellow that he was falling asleep. “I just got off a 16 1/2-hour shift at Canoga Park Hospital, where I’m a nurse,” said Silver, who was waiting for his girlfriend to exchange a malfunctioning Anne Klein watch he had given her.

The mood was much calmer at the mall’s small Frederick’s of Hollywood lingerie store. “It’s just that many of our customers haven’t gotten up yet,” said the silver-haired store manager, Sonia Grover, who has worked at the store for 20 years. “They start coming in in the afternoon.”

The merchandising manager at the Target discount store in Carson reported only moderate business by late afternoon, with all 16 registers open but none backed up as they were on Friday and Saturday. "(Holiday) sales were very good, and we didn’t replenish,” said Van Harris, suggesting that shoppers might have gone elsewhere for greater selection. “It has been an active day but not one of the real hectic days.”

At the Galleria at South Bay in Torrance, the parking lot was full by 9:30 a.m. and the garage was filling. Inside, the mall was crowded but far from jammed. The stores doing the most business appeared to be the anchors--Mervyn’s, Nordstrom and May Co.--along with specialty stores offering plenty of sale merchandise, such as Victoria’s Secret, Laura Ashley and Gymboree, a children’s store.

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Larry Keel of Redondo Beach, who was returning the Christmas briefcase he had gotten from his wife, encountered one store’s policy of no refunds on sale items. “I want a different style, probably an upgrade,” he said. “I’ll get another one.”

When asked if his wife minded that he was returning the gift, he laughed and said: “No. She’s returning what I got her, a real expensive business suit. . . . She’s going to wait until the crowds die down, but I’m going for it now.”

By Monday, the holiday spirit had worn thin for some customers and salespeople. At the Westside Pavilion Nordstrom, one customer who tried to sidestep a line at the hosiery counter by going to another department to pay for some stockings got an uncharacteristically snappish rebuke from a saleswoman: “And you think you’re better than everyone else in that line?”

Relieved About Season

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Disgruntled customers and overworked salespeople aside, one high-level source at the Broadway’s Los Angeles headquarters sounded relieved about the holiday season overall. It proved to be more of a cliffhanger than usual because Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday, prompting many gift seekers to wait until the 11th hour.

“It’s a nice, crisp day,” he said. “We feel really comfortable. We closed the last three days (before Christmas) very, very strong, even with the rain.” However, he said, it was too early to tell how badly the stores were being hit by returned merchandise.

For December, the chain had been forecasting percentage sales gains in the high single digits but managed to surpass that, he said, even though business “came very late.”

Elsewhere, stores in many parts of the country reported brisk business. At the customer service department at R.H. Macy & Co. in New York, employees reported getting calls from people with charge accounts who wanted to know how much more they could spend.

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Iowa shoppers braved nasty weather to return unwanted Christmas presents, cash in gift certificates or take advantage of sales. “We are very busy, but we don’t have as large a crowd as we would have had had there not been freezing rain and sleet,” said Pam Schenck, general manager at Westdale Mall in Cedar Rapids.

Contributing to this story were staff writers Linda Williams and Douglas Frantz in Los Angeles, David Colker in the San Fernando Valley and Mary Ann Galante in Orange County.


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