Wrapped Around a Bargain

Times Staff Writers

Seeking bargains at any price, consumers kicked off the official start of the holiday shopping season Friday, snapping up comforters at Kmart and trinkets from Tiffany's.

The scene across Southern California told a tale of two economies. Many people were obviously ready to spend more than they did last year, while others, out of work or worried about the future, were holding back. But whether they were spending a lot or a little, they were on the hunt for deals.

In Beverly Hills, scores of women jammed into the Enzo Angiolini store, where leather boots were marked down as much as 50%. Brooks Bros. sold out its inventory of camel-colored cashmere scarves priced at $98 each.

"We cannot keep them in stock," said Brooks Bros. general manager James W. Jahant. "Customers are buying our non-iron shirts, men's and women's, in quantities -- four to eight apiece."

In West Covina, Gabriella Ortiz, 32, was in a queue outside Robinsons-May at 5:45 a.m. in hopes of being one of 300 customers to get a $15 gift card when the doors opened at 6 a.m. The Baldwin Park resident has been out of a job since February when her employer, a plastics manufacturer, closed.

"I'm spending less this year, by a lot," Ortiz said. "That's the reason I'm standing here."

By 6:05 a.m. the gift cards were gone, and Ortiz had missed out. But that didn't dissuade her from continuing her mission to find discount linens and other household items on sale.

"Consumers are value-conscious right now. That means quality, it means selection and, of course it means price," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation, the industry's largest trade group. "There are deals, even on the high end."

But it was the prestige of Tiffany & Co. that brought Gary Miles, 25, to Beverly Hills. The computer programmer from Hollywood was shopping for his girlfriend of nearly two years at the tony jeweler at Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard. Tiffany's offers a "safe" selection, he said, sure to please her.

"Christmas only comes once a year, and if I went somewhere cheap it wouldn't look too good," he said, adding he would be spending about $400.

Overall, Beverly Hills retailers said they expected a double-digit increase over last year's holiday season, particularly after a robust September and November. October was a little out of sync, but store managers attributed that to Southern California's wildfires.

In fact, many people who braved the crowds Friday said they were already ringing up big bills.

Jim Boldrick, 65, was one. The oil industry lawyer from Dana Point was at Neiman-Marcus in the Fashion Island shopping center in Newport Beach, waiting for a clerk to help him buy a $200 Faberge egg for his daughter-in-law and Waterford letter openers and other crystal knickknacks for his office staff and various friends.

Boldrick said he planned to spend about $1,000 on Friday. "When I have a good year," he said, "it's important to be generous."

As for Glenn Grandis, he started his day at Sears in Costa Mesa, where he bought $10 halogen lamps and $10 air gauges to give as presents. Then it was on to Best Buy, where the 39-year-old computer system installer, who lives in Fountain Valley, waited in a line that wrapped around the store three times to pick up children's software for relatives.

At Fry's Electronics, his third stop, he bought himself a little something: a $1,899 computer, monitor and printer. "I came in, got in line and asked one of the employees to fetch it for me so I wouldn't waste any time," Grandis said.

A number of Southland malls reported strong traffic, but, according to Richard Giss, a retail consultant at Deloitte & Touche, it was slower than usual for the day after Thanksgiving.

"Discounters, on the other hand, are doing very well," he said, because they have aggressively cut prices.

The Kmart in Costa Mesa offered cards to the first 100 people in line that would erase $1 to $100 from the prices of their purchases. Suzette Price was the first in line when the store opened at 6 a.m.

"I'm a rookie -- this is my first year doing this," said Price, a 31-year-old office manager from Costa Mesa. "I don't really know what I'm looking for."

That didn't stop her from grabbing an armload of VHS tapes, including "Frosty the Snowman" and "Christmas Pups," at 88 cents each. Set to pay $12.27 at the register, Price learned that her card was worth $25 -- so she made a U-turn to grab a $12.49 comforter.

Nearby, 62-year-old Sve Symonds, a retiree from Costa Mesa, collected earrings.

"How can you go wrong -- $13.99 for 14-carat gold and blue sapphire?" she asked, showing off her bounty: a shopping bag filled with little boxes.

At 6 a.m., Dalton Stamps, 62, was amused to learn that he was the 1,187th customer waiting in line outside the Wal-Mart at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Two-and-a-half hours later, the neophyte post-Thanksgiving shopper was finished, having acquired a $79 DVD player for his grandson and two bicycles at $24 each to give to a neighborhood gift program for underprivileged youngsters.

"This isn't really my Christmas shopping," he said. "This is just get-up-early-because-they-have-a-sale."

Although some Americans have their Christmas presents wrapped before they slice into their Thanksgiving turkey, Friday is considered the official launch of the holiday shopping season. It's called "Black Friday" in the industry because it traditionally was the day retailers began posting profits -- shifting from "the red" into "the black."

It is not, however, the busiest shopping day of the year, a designation that typically goes to the Saturday before Christmas.

Black Friday sales figures won't be available until next week.

The National Retail Federation, the industry's largest trade group, predicts nationwide sales for the full season will be up 5.7% to $217.4 billion. Deloitte's Giss initially expected sales to rise 6%, but now says a 4.5% to 5% increase is more likely. The recent consumer confidence numbers weren't as high as he expected, Giss said, and problems in Iraq and the Middle East are keeping people on edge.

In Southern California, Giss added, the grocery strike is "a downer for a lot of people."

"Certainly the people on strike are going to be very cautious," he said, "but the effect of having an uncertain and irregular environment out there causes others to have caution" as well.

For Albert Ramirez, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority supervisor who clocked fewer hours than normal during the 35-day MTA strike, caution was the word of the day. He was at the Westfield Shoppingtown West Covina mall when it opened with his 10-year-old son Edward -- who had saved $60 from his allowance to spend on gifts and was so excited about the excursion that he awoke at 3 a.m.

By 8:30 a.m., Edward had selected a $5.99 plush doll from the film "Lilo & Stitch" at the Disney store to give to his mom, and planned on shopping "until I get everybody a present."

Ramirez, from West Covina, said he and his family would spend about half as much as usual -- $500 instead of $1,000.

"Our budget is limited," said Ramirez, 43, adding that he planned to pay cash as much as possible to avoid racking up credit card debt.

For their part, retailers are keeping inventories lean in hopes that they won't have to slash prices next month to rid themselves of merchandise.

In the standard tactic meant to jump-start the season, many of them slashed prices Friday and offered "door buster" sales to get shoppers into stores early.

Toys R Us in Porter Ranch unlocked its doors at 4:50 a.m. Within 25 minutes, the aisles were congested with customers and carts, with the biggest logjam near the Barbie section. Dozens of parents inched along, praying for a miracle -- that the supply of dolls would hold out. Anita Bernardo, a 41-year-old mother of two young daughters and one of the first through the door, snagged two Swan Lake Barbies, at $19.99 each, plus a $109.99 version of the doll that stands 3 feet tall.

Like a number of shoppers, Bernardo said her Christmas budget would be fatter this year because she and her husband had more money in the bank this year, having refinanced their Granada Hills home.

"It lowered our mortgage by $500 a month," Bernardo said, adding that she planned to spend about $2,500 on gifts.

Joe Sullivan, 62, was laden with the Christmas spirit as he pushed a cart through the aisles of the 99 Cents Only store on Wilshire Boulevard in the Miracle Mile area at 8 a.m. The cart held 10 packaged toy trucks, just 99 cents each, that he planned to give to needy children.

His wife died seven years ago, and the retired garment industry worker said he kept her memory alive by continuing the Christmas traditions they had created together.

"Even if they just play with it for an hour, it's worth it," he said. "For 99 cents, to make a child happy, what could be better?"

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Times staff writers Erin Ailworth, Kevin Pang, Debora Vrana and William Wan contributed to this report.

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