Toys R Rush : Retailing: The City of Industry outlet of the nation's largest toy chain is jammed on the last weekend before Christmas.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If a retailing slump looks like this, boom times must be scary.

At Toys R Us in the City of Industry over the weekend, customers pushing shopping carts choked the aisles, and as many as 19 cash register lanes were kept open to deal with the constant crush.

In one five-minute stretch on Saturday afternoon, about 75 people poured through the main entrance. Outside, frustrated motorists who hadn't picked up the holiday spirit yet were honking at each other as they circled the jammed lot in search of parking spaces.

"It's like a zoo, huh?" said a young woman, gently tugging a toddler into the store.

Whatever you call it, this was a time of feverish last-minute shopping. A Times reporter visited the City of Industry Toys R Us store to get a first-hand look at the toy trade on the last weekend before Christmas, when the holiday season reaches its climax for many merchants.

For shoppers and store employees, at times it was tough going.

"People in the aisles would run you over," groused Jim Oppel, a hydraulic test technician from Whittier looking for a present for his son.

"I'd go to help one person, and I'd be approached by four or five others," said Kimberly Broome, a 23-year-old clerk from Baldwin Park.

But for Toys R Us itself, it was an opportunity to make up for lost ground. The season has been miserable for many toy retailers who, like other types of merchants, have been hurt by vanishing consumer confidence and a shortage of exciting new products.

Giant Toys R Us--the nation's No. 1 toy seller, with 451 U.S. toy stores and an estimated 25% of the market--has felt the pinch. Some experts expect its holiday sales at stores open more than one year to be down from last year, even before taking inflation into account.

"There hasn't been anything compelling enough to bring people in," said Larry Carlat, editor of the trade publication Toy & Hobby World.

Or, as Gabriele Spuckes, director of the City of Industry store, put it: "You can still go to a toy store and see people buying standard toys like the GI Joes, the Barbies and the board games. It hasn't been a year when there's been one or two hot items."

But this weekend, what also was apparent was how busy it can get at a store that crams half its annual business into the last six weeks of the year. And it was clear how resilient the toy business can be even when the overall economy seems to be sinking into recession.

"Parents are going to do without before their children do," said Spuckes, a nine-year Toys R Us veteran.

Cindy Molla of Rowland Heights got her granddaughter a doll some time ago for Christmas, but decided to head to Toys R Us on Saturday to buy something extra. "I just got a Christmas bonus, so I thought, why not?" said Molla, a receptionist.

To be sure, economic conditions have prompted many toy buyers to scale back their plans.

Malcolm Corbin, a 30-year-old janitorial supplies salesman from La Puente, said he saw the nation's apparent recession coming months ago when his business began slowing and his commissions shrunk.

"When people start cutting back on ordering toilet paper, you know we're in trouble," he said.

So when Corbin and his wife stopped at Toys R Us to shop for gifts for their 2-year-old daughter, they gave up on the idea of costly educational toys. Instead, they bought dolls and a sing-along video, hoping to get the educational gifts later when times are better.

Toys R Us is probably better equipped than any other toy merchant to attract the business of customers such as the Corbins who were rewriting their shopping lists and doing their buying at the last minute. The company's strengths are its broad selections and deep inventories of merchandise. Competitors are usually outgunned on those fronts, so many respond by undercutting, when they can, Toys R Us' "everyday low prices."

Although toy retailers began mapping their plans for Christmas in January, when the industry holds its annual convention, Toys R Us has the clout to cancel orders and buy extra holiday season inventory well into the fall.

"Toys R Us is the 800-pound gorilla, and you have to dance to their tune," Carlat said.

The company also is respected for its computerized inventory-tracking system, which draws on sales information supplied continuously by its electronic cash registers.

Still, even with all of the fresh data, Toys R Us sometimes misjudges consumer demand. At the City of Industry store, boxes of extra inventory were stacked high on the top shelves, with little prospect of being snapped up by Christmas. One example: the stacks of Sesame Street Bert and Ernie Water Pals.

There also were duds in the clearance aisles--Trump, the Game and The Coach Potato Game gathering dust.

Although the City of Industry store declined to provide sales figures, some employees and shoppers said it seemed a little slower than the weekend before Christmas last year. Even in the busiest moments, though, shoppers noted that there are things worse than heavy crowds.

"The only thing I dread is something not being in stock," said Brad Kerr of Walnut, who was shopping for his three children. "Usually what my kids want is hard to get," he added.

TOYS R US' CITY OF INDUSTRY STORE * Location--The outlet, which opened in August, 1987, is on East Gale Avenue across from the Puente Hills Mall. Its owner, the nation's biggest chain of toy stores, is based in Paramus, N.J. * Hot Products--Nintendo and other video games, Baby Alive, Go-Go Puppies, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fisher-Price Tournament Table, Barbie, GI Joe. * Employment--Usually, 80 to 90 full- and part-time workers. With temporary help for the holiday season, employment is up to 200.

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