Kohl's Arrives in Southland to Much Fanfare and Huge Crowds

Times Staff Writer

A $10 gift card and lots of bargains trumped war fears and worries about the economy for thousands of Southern Californians as shoppers beat a path to 28 Kohl's stores on their grand opening Friday.

"It's like the day after Thanksgiving, times two," said Paul Williams, a Paramount resident who bought a crock pot, blender, pillow and two bath towels at a Kohl's in Huntington Beach. "I got all that for $37. You can't beat that."

Williams and other shoppers said they were surprised by the response to the Wisconsin-based retailer's debut in Southern California, one of the nation's most competitive markets.

"It's a work day," said Stanton resident Janet Clarke, 55, a purchasing director who stood in line in Huntington Beach to buy a suitcase and four blouses. "Why isn't everybody at work?" Clarke said her excuse was that she had a short day at the office.

Kohl's, a discount department store chain, has been charting its entry into the Southland for about four years. (The company plans to open about 80 stores nationwide this year, including the 28 launched here Friday.)

A few months ago, it began banging its drum with local television ads and other promotions. Then it mailed $10 gift cards to homes near the new stores. And Friday, Kohl's opened at 7 a.m. with promises of free tote bags to the first 600 shoppers at each location.

Crowds were waiting at all the store sites; there were about 800 people in Torrance and about 600 in West Hills and Buena Park, according to Susan Henderson, a spokeswoman for the Menomonee Falls, Wis., chain.

"We gave out those bags immediately," she said. "It has just been an overwhelming reception by the customers here in Southern California."

Investors were happy: Kohl's shares rose $1.28 to close at $51.26 on the New York Stock Exchange.

How long the enthusiasm will last is anybody's guess. Kohl's foray into California comes at a time when consumer confidence has been badly shaken by a sluggish economy and worries about a possible war.

"You get that initial positive reaction from consumers -- being curious and taking advantage of the sale prices and maybe different products, but it's going to be tough," said Esmael Adibi, an economist at Chapman University. "They have to keep improving and have an eye on price and quality to be able to compete."

Kohl's, known for its large selection of brand names and well-stocked stores, could provide fierce competition to a wide range of retailers, from department stores such as Robinsons-May to discounters such as Target and Mervyn's, Kohl's closest rival.

Generally located in strip centers, Kohl's stores offer stroller-style shopping carts to attract moms, the chain's target customers.

Hayward, Calif.-based Mervyn's, the weakest link in the Target Corp. family, has responded with new commercials, said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. "You can see a more sprightly approach on the part of Mervyn's" advertising, he said. "You can tell Kohl's is on their mind."

Economists said Kohl's opening is a plus for the Southland, where Kmart Corp. and other retailers are shuttering stores. Kohl's said it hired 4,200 people in Southern California.

Shoppers should benefit as well, analysts said, since competition could keep prices low.

"I'm just interested in any place where there's a really good sale," said Janene Zirges, 44, a mother of four from Garden Grove. Zirges was lured to the Huntington Beach Kohl's in part by the gift card and then filled out a credit card application, to get a 10% discount.

"We don't normally charge things," she said, "but I'm willing to do this if it gives me a deal."

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