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Shoppers Go Back to Basics : Economy: Holiday buyers are less impulsive and are avoiding pricey items. But gifts under $50 are selling well.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Recession-weary shoppers are sticking to the basics this holiday season, avoiding big-ticket items, such as computers, in favor of simpler gifts like books and traditional toys, merchants say.

“It’s better than everybody expected,” said Faith Salyer, a clerk at Waldenbooks in Ventura’s Buenaventura Mall.

Bruce Thompson, B. Dalton Bookseller assistant manager, agreed that business has picked up as last-minute shoppers rush to beat the clock.

But the demand for computers and video games has lagged this season, merchants said. “Big-ticket items are not selling,” said Dean Duke, manager of Radio Shack in the Buenaventura Mall.

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Shoppers are buying gifts in the $30- to $40-range, he said. “Anything under $50 is selling.” Hand-held video games, which cost $8 to $15, are popular, as are $20 spell checkers.

“People aren’t quite as impulsive,” said Karleen Cowan, a supervisor at Imaginarium in The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks. Shoppers are bypassing the Super Nintendo for conventional toys, like erector sets, Legos, Lincoln Logs, kaleidoscopes and Mr. Potato Heads, merchants said.

Karon Pineau, who was shopping this week with her husband and two sons, said simpler toys are high on their shopping list.

“A lot of people don’t have a lot of money to spend on video games,” said Pineau of Simi Valley. “They’re going back to more basic toys.”

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Sales are slightly down at J.C. Penney in the Buenaventura Mall, said operations manager Cheryl Tovar. “We’re struggling.” But she expects sales to improve soon, because Christmas falls on a Wednesday, giving shoppers a four-day window for last-minute buying.

“The weekend before Christmas is a big shopping day for us,” said Tovar, whose enthusiasm was tempered by consumers’ conservative shopping.

“They’ve got a budget,” she said. “You hear comments like, ‘I like this, but I can wait until it goes on sale.’ ”

Shoppers are also turning to clothing for gifts, such as sweaters, jackets and blouses.

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Jacobus and Janny Engelhart of Santa Paula bought underwear, socks and sweaters for their daughters. “It’s more what they need,” said Janny, who added that cologne might be the only luxury she buys this Christmas.

Even retail clerk Diane Northrop has fallen on hard times. The Oxnard hairstylist was forced to take an extra job this year to feed her family. People “are not spending their money on themselves but on their families,” Northrop said. “You go to a retail place and take a job for $5 an hour.”

Northrop said she is one of about 50 employees hired by J.C. Penney last month to work the holiday season. “I used to work in advertising (before hairstyling) and now this,” she said, glumly waving a hand at a stack of jeans in front of her.

At Toys R Us in Ventura, holiday sales are equaling last year, said sales manager Sharon Brollier. But “it was a guessing game going into the season,” she said.

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Christmas began to glisten when some toys became surprise hits this season, including a remote-control car for toddlers and a Nerf bow-and-arrow set that comes with three foam arrows.

The $16 crossbow set was introduced last year but didn’t sell. This season, merchants said they can’t keep it in stock. Toys R Us sold out 15 cases within days, said Brollier, who attributes the toy’s popularity to increased advertising this year.

Designed for children ages 5 and up, the toy was also sold out at Ricky’s Toys & Hobbies in The Oaks mall. “We get people in here a hundred times a day asking for it,” said store clerk Derrick McGovert. “You can’t get them anywhere.”

A $15 Blast-a-Matic, a bazooka-like toy gun that shoots yellow balls, is also “really awesome” this year, McGovert said.

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For girls, dolls remain popular, especially Barbie--and her many permutations--which cost from $13 to $36. My Pretty Mermaid, $34, and tea sets ranging from $7 to $15 are also hot. Magic Nursery, a doll whose sex is determined by placing the diaper in water, costs about $30.

For older children and adults, the game Jenga is a hot item. The object of the game, which ranges from $15 to $26 at various stores, is to pull out individual blocks from a pile without toppling the stack.

Merchants like J.C. Penney’s Tovar said they haven’t given up on this Christmas season but hope the future will be rosier. “We’re going to still end up struggling if people continue to be conservative,” she said.


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