Crowds pack stores, but will the buying continue?

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Anyone wondering whether Americans have the nerve to keep spending despite a rattled economy might have been cheered by the Friday morning scene at Fry’s Electronics in Fountain Valley.

And by the chutzpah of Sawmon Jahagiri, who paid $40 to a more fortunate line sitter for a prime spot in the queue. The Saddleback College student was one of thousands who surged into the store when the doors opened at 5 a.m., grabbing laptops, GPS devices and televisions too huge to fit in their cars.

Half an hour later, Jahagiri was slumped outside the entrance, exhausted but triumphant with a 50-inch plasma-screen TV that he scored for $897, marked down from $1,500. It’s a gift for his father.

“I really can’t afford this TV -- I’ll be making monthly payments on my credit card until this time next year,” the 19-year-old Laguna Niguel resident said. “But it’s the holidays. You do what you have to do.”

Americans from coast to coast did what they had to do Friday, during the post-Thanksgiving extravaganza that marks the official launch of the holiday shopping season. Some did more than they had to during consuming excursions that in some cases began before the turkey and stuffing were cold.

In Northridge, police were called late Thursday to disperse an angry crowd of about 150 people who had camped out in front of a Circuit City store, Los Angeles Police Department spokeswoman Kate Lopez said.

At Camarillo Premium Outlets on Friday, teenage girls shoved store clerks to get their hands on Ugg boots. At the Fry’s in Fountain Valley, shoppers tried to wrest a shopping cart from a man who had two of them. At South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, some shoppers carried so many bags that they tipped to one side.

Retail experts out to survey the action -- and snag a bargain while they were at it -- sometimes got caught in the fray.

“It was overwhelming,” said Jharonne Martis, senior research analyst for Thomson Financial, in Queens, N.Y. “At Toys R Us, I couldn’t even walk. I stood there five minutes waiting for the crowd to move so I could move too.”

None of this means that a so-far lackluster holiday season will finally turn lively. More likely, it just tells retailers what they already know: Americans love a bargain.

“Clearly, people are buying what’s being promoted,” said Russell Jones, a retail expert and director at Alixpartners, a restructuring and performance improvement firm in Richmond, Va. “You also are hoping, as a retailer, that they’re going to be buying some of the nonpromotional items, and there did not appear to be a lot of that going on today.”

Information gathered Friday was largely anecdotal, as sales and traffic numbers won’t start dribbling in until today.

Although some people began collecting gifts before Halloween, shoppers generally have been slow to start this season. Many have reined in spending as they worry about rising pump prices, higher mortgage payments and shrinking home values.

The National Retail Federation is predicting that holiday sales will rise 4% this year, less than the 4.8% average over the last decade and down from last year’s 4.6% increase.

“Overall, the picture is not that optimistic,” said economist Sung Won Sohn, chief executive of Hanmi Bank in Los Angeles, adding that 1 out of 8 U.S. jobs is linked to the nation’s troubled housing market. “Clearly housing is still sliding. We have not seen the bottom.”

Knowing what they’re up against, retailers have outdone themselves this year to yank shoppers into stores, opening earlier and offering a wider array of merchandise marked down for “door buster” sales meant to launch people from their beds.

Consumers, meanwhile, have become savvier about navigating the sales partly because websites have sprung up to tip them off about what merchandise stores plan to mark down. And when shoppers finally got serious about shopping, they got very serious.

Tommy Ha and nine buddies camped out in shifts at the Fry’s in Fountain Valley, starting at 1 a.m. Thursday, forgoing Thanksgiving dinner and bathroom breaks to ward off line jumpers. Comparing the group to U.S. Navy SEALs, the auto-park employee from Orange said they scoped out the store early, made maps of the layout and created cards detailing the product number and location of each thing they wanted.

The goal: get $20,000 of goods within 20 minutes.

Other shoppers undertook less daunting tasks.

Earl Lyons set his sights on Lego sets for his 7-year-old son. The Thousand Oaks real estate investor -- who also planned to buy the boy a guitar, a Microsoft Xbox and a Nintendo Wii -- said he and his wife typically spend a couple thousand dollars each on their two children, and they’re not cutting back this year. Rents from his tenants are still coming in, he said.

But many consumers are trimming their spending this year. That’s why Maria Ramos was searching for bargains Friday at the Wal-Mart at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in L.A.

“I need to take advantage when the prices are low so I can buy my Christmas gifts,” said the Los Angeles resident, who cleans a building in Beverly Hills. She collected Barbie dolls, a jacket and a coffee maker and was in line for a digital camera.

Bargains motivated consumers, but so did the notion of stampeding to stores the day after Thanksgiving. In fact, it has become a tradition for some families.

“No one’s waiting here out of necessity,” said Robert Stucken, 52, a college professor who was in line at Fry’s with his 24-year-old son, Joe. “It’s all supplemental to their lives. It’s just fun because it’s kind of like a cult and a bonding opportunity.”

Another father-son team -- Milton and Greg Gee -- was first in line at a Best Buy store in San Francisco, having arrived at 8 a.m. Thursday with four of Greg’s pals.

“I’ve been doing this for five years and it’s the third time I’ve been first in line,” said Milton Gee, a San Francisco resident who repairs telephone lines.

That’s the enthusiasm retailers are hoping for as they navigate the November-December shopping period, during which they typically collect 20% to 40% of the year’s revenues.

Though the so-called Black Friday weekend isn’t necessarily a tip-off to how sales will play out over the rest of the season, it’s important to consumer electronics chains. The nickname is linked to a retail myth that the Friday after Thanksgiving is the day retailers begin making profits and move into the black.

Normally, David Leal wouldn’t be in stores this early in the season. But at 5:30 a.m. Friday, the Daly City, Calif., resident was pushing a cart laden with DVDs, a wine cooler, a camcorder and a digital camera through the Best Buy in San Francisco. The 22-year-old bartender had scoured the Internet for shopping tips and compared store lines.

After selecting his target at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Leal ate his Thanksgiving dinner in line. When he was done at Best Buy, Leal planned to head to Office Max and CompUSA.

“I usually shop the last week before Christmas,” Leal said. “If I can get it done all in one day, it’ll be worth it.”

Earnest and Hsu reported from Southern California and Chang from the San Francisco Bay Area. Times staff writers Paloma Esquivel, Victoria Kim, Daniela Perdomo and Jesus Sanchez in Southern California contributed to this report.

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