Southland's Shoppers Get in the Spirit


Rebounding from last year's lethargy, Christmas shoppers thronged to Southland malls over the weekend in response to special promotions, a shortened holiday shopping season and improved economic tidings, fueling retailers' hopes of a bountiful season of sales.

Nationally, one shopping center trade group reported that sales at specialty stores the day after Thanksgiving rose 11% over the same day last year, led by boosts in jewelry, apparel and toys. In Southern California, several department stores reported smaller but no less encouraging sales increases, compared with last year's dismal tally.

Spurring the early buying is an improving economy that shows the highest consumer confidence in a decade, low unemployment and fatter paychecks. Shoppers may simply be buying earlier: The Christmas shopping season is five days shorter than last year because Thanksgiving fell later on the calendar. Moreover, Hanukkah starts Thursday, earlier than most years.

In any case, Macy's West Chief Executive Michael Steinberg said business at 106 California locations was "ahead of last year and off to a strong start." The upscale department store chain expects to exceed last year's sales numbers by "several percentage points."

"It looks like we're in line to have a really good holiday," said Jack Khzouz, general manager of Nordstrom at the Glendale Galleria. "We saw an uptick throughout November because shoppers realized they had less time to get it done."

TeleCheck Services, the world's largest check acceptance company, reported dollar sales by check at 15,000 client stores open at least one year increased 3.6% nationwide on Friday compared with the same day last year. The increase was even higher in California at 4.3%, and in the Los Angeles area, up 4.1%.

"The season's off to a roaring start. Consumers are more confident this year, incomes are up and more people have jobs," said William Ford, TeleCheck's economic advisor. He said last year's same-store sales by check for the Friday after Thanksgiving decreased 4.8% in the nation and dropped 5.5% in California.

Many shoppers were lured by special promotions staged by malls to ensure a turnaround from an ugly 1995. The 110-store Moreno Valley Mall was typical with its Money Machine attraction that gave lucky shoppers free cash, merchandise and trips. The mall also features a daily "Breakfast With Santa Claus" for the first time.

So far, shoppers are enthusiastic: The mall's Sears store reports a "double-digit increase" in sales over last year, spokeswoman Marla Niffen said. Hot items include electronic games--especially the Nintendo 64--apparel and jewelry.

Dayton Hudson, the Minneapolis-based parent of 1,100 retail stores including Mervyn's and Target, reported overall sales were up this weekend, led by "significant" gains at Target and "on plan" improvement at Mervyn's, where promotions included free "Holiday Survival Kits" and complimentary Joe Montana Nerf footballs.

"The mall is very crowded and people are carrying bags and that usually tells us sales are good," said Dennis McGovern, assistant general manager of the new Ontario Mills mall. Art Gomez of Horton Plaza in San Diego echoed the enthusiasm: "We've been busy. Traffic is very heavy."

The first weekend of the holiday season isn't necessarily a gauge of how the remaining weeks until Christmas will go. And some retailers and economists are concerned that high credit card debt levels may restrain some shoppers.

Still, the International Council of Shopping Centers, which reported the 11% sales rise in 1,000 specialty stores located at sampled malls, gushed at the big jumps in mall restaurant and jewelry sales, which reflect higher shopper traffic and consumer confidence, respectively.

"People don't buy jewelry unless they feel good about the economy and their position in the economy," said John Konarski, vice president of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Times wires services contributed to this report.

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