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The 3-Day Countdown Starts for Retailers : Sales: While some stores are busy, others find it slow, and there’s a lot of discounting going on.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For merchants in Orange County malls, this is a do-or-die weekend.

The holiday shopping season, which got off to a healthy start after Thanksgiving, had slowed to a near-crawl last week. Maybe it was the announcements of thousands of layoffs nationwide by companies such as TRW and General Motors. Maybe it was the general sorry state of economy. Whatever the reason, shoppers have been either been buying less expensive merchandise, buying from discounters or shunning malls entirely.

The three days remaining are all that stand between making Christmas, 1991, a holiday that merchants will want to forget or so bad that they won’t be able to forget. A last-minute sales spurt would be great, but few observers were hopeful.

“I really don’t think the last week is going to pull the season through for a lot of people,” said Tony Cherbak, a retail consultant for the Irvine office of the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche. “Only about 10% of the shoppers wait until the last minute.”

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So much is at stake. Merchants typically rack up half or more of their sales at Christmastime. They count on the holiday windfall to tide them through the slow months.

The desperation-shoppers may find little company from the bargain hunters. Last year, thrifty shoppers watched eagle-eyed as the discounts just seemed to get better and better right through Christmas. This year, major department stores have been holding sales virtually every weekend since early November, sales that continue through this weekend.

Just how bad has the season been for retailers?

“Truly horrible,” said a clerk at the Fashion Frenzy store in Newport Beach’s Fashion Island.

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“We’ve had a few good days but nothing great,” said a Ritz Camera store salesman at the Westminster Mall.

“Overall, sales have not picked up at the pace we hoped,” said a spokeswoman for the Nordstrom stores in Orange County.

Parking spaces were still easy to find through the middle of last week at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, the most successful mall in the western United States. There was also plenty of merchandise on the shelves.

Gloomy economic predictions didn’t help matters. In the week before Christmas, General Motors announced it will cut 74,000 jobs nationwide and the Bush Administration acknowledged that no end was in sight for the recession.

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“The continued news of layoffs is putting fears into the minds of shoppers that maybe they should not be spending as much,” Pat Murphy-Kessinger, a retail analyst for the Irvine office of the accounting firm of Ernst & Young, said, adding:

“It’s not that people aren’t visiting the malls. It’s just that they aren’t buying once they get there.”

“The traffic is definitely there,” said Nordstrom spokeswoman Linda Luna Franks “They are just taking their time.”

Mall merchants are full of tales of just how far consumers will go to save a buck.

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One woman found a discounted stereo component at the Video Concepts store at the Westminster Mall for $139 after having bought the same item from a competitor. She returned the more expensive one.

“She drove three hours . . . to save $39,” said Ken Haynes, the store’s assistant manager. Another customer, he said, came in and bought a wide-screen television set for $725 after waiting for an entire year for it to be marked down from $950. Customers used to buy electronics for a fancy new feature, Haynes said, but this year, customers are drawn mostly by price.

Businesses like Video Concepts have responded by lowering prices and offering better credit terms, although such concessions mean lower profit margins. Normally, most items might carry a markup as high as 25%. “Now we’re happy to get 20%" and in many cases it’s less, Haynes added.

There are good sales nights and bad. “It’s real sporadic. We have days where we’re far ahead and nights . . . (when) it’s a ghost town,” Haynes said.

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At Ritz Camera, customers are shunning the more expensive camcorders and sticking with less expensive cameras and smaller items, salesman Lee Hebner said.

But not all businesses are doing badly. There are some exceptions, notably discounters.

A Dallas-based close-out chain specializing in deeply discounted, high-quality housewares called Tuesday Morning opened three stores in the county in time for the holiday season and have been exceeding sales expectations by 30%.

The outlets have done so well that they are running short on some merchandise. Karen Costigan, a Tuesday Morning vice president, noted that a manager at the Mission Viejo store said “that when they get a truck, the customers come in with scissors to (help) cut open the boxes.”

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One upscale store reporting strong sales is the At Ease men’s sportswear store at Fashion Island. Owners Ron and Linda Beale say they sold three Timberline leather coats at $1,100 each over four days.

But the store’s biggest sellers are also among its lowest-priced items: ties. One man came in recently and bought 25 ties to hand out as gifts, Ron Beale said.

Betty Nelson, a clerk in a Fashion Island luggage shop, was irate after hearing a radio report that discounters are prospering this holiday season. She said the people who patronize Fashion Island would rather do without than shop at a discounter.

“Our customers won’t go to Pic ‘N’ Save,” she sniffed.

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Consultant Tony Cherbak said the Victoria’s Secret shop at South Coast Plaza, a mid-priced seller of women’s lingerie, had a half-hour wait at the cash register one night last week. But the Gucci shop, seller of expensive leather goods, was so empty “you could have driven a car through,” Cherbak added.


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