The holiday shopping season dawns Stores open early

customers flock to sales, promotions

November 30, 1996|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Kevin L. McQuaid contributed to this report.

Driven by the American obsession with sales and freebies, shoppers rose before dawn to take part in the traditional feast of holiday shopping yesterday.

And because Black Friday came as late on the calendar as it could, stores conspired to get customers through their doors earlier in the morning than ever.

At the Target in Ellicott City's Long Gate Shopping Center, which opened at 7 a.m., they started arriving at 5: 30 a.m.

By 6: 45, the crowd had swelled to more than 100.

Why does someone get up that early to go shopping the day after Thanksgiving?

"Well, they are handing out free gifts," said Lisa Larsson of Ellicott City. "And you've got to get going for Christmas. Charge! Reminds me of the Flintstones. Charge!"

But the other reason was the hot new video game system --

Nintendo 64 -- which is a hard-to-find item.

"If I can get this, for once [my children] would be surprised," said Cathy Morris of Columbia, just before squeezing her way in with the crowd.

Just 45 minutes after Target opened its doors, it had sold about 60 or 70 of the 90 Nintendo 64s it had in stock for a cool $199 each.

The store had held back the merchandise last week to be able to offer it yesterday, said manager Jean Caufriez.

At the Value City Department Store in Westview Mall, about 300 people were lined up when the store opened at 7 a.m.

Why? The first 100 shoppers got a $20 gift certificate, and the next 100 shoppers got a 20 percent-off coupon.

The Victoria's Secret store in the Owings Mills Mall had some toiletries on sale until 11 a.m.

Hecht's and Macy's tried to draw customers in with early hours and sales.

Worried that five fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year would mean that the cash registers would ring up fewer sales, merchants have tried to compensate with promotions and longer hours, said John Konarski, vice president of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

While sales this early in the buying season would usually indicate that merchants are worried they won't make their crucial end-of-the-year profit, the sales have been planned way in advance, Konarski said.

"Retail is so competitive these days, you have to offer promotions early," he said.

The promotions seemed to work for the large department and discount stores, where people went early.

But during the morning hours, smaller specialty stores in malls were quiet.

"From 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. I didn't see anyone," said one store clerk at Owings Mills Mall who asked not to be identified.

At noon, assistant manager Ben Whitehouse and his co-workers at Planet Music in Westview Mall were wondering where all the people were.

"It's not as busy as last year. I have noticed a real difference," he said. But later in the day sales picked up considerably, he said.

Stores haven't calculated their revenues, but the crowds didn't appear unusually large for the day at many malls.

"I think people are afraid of Friday because I think it is getting to be too busy," said Felicia Jacobs, manager of the Williams-Sonoma store at the Owings Mills Mall.

In the past decade, the day after Thanksgiving has been a day to browse and look, but not necessarily to buy.

Only 8 percent of the holiday sales were rung up on Thanksgiving weekend last year; 60 percent of gifts are purchased in the last two weeks before Christmas.

In fact, the day after Thanksgiving didn't even rank in the top five busiest days in 1995.

However, shoppers may have been bucking the trend this year. Christine Weaver and Kelly Steele, both of Columbia, had started at 7: 30 a.m. and by noon were juggling packages and still going strong at the Owings Mills Mall.

"We are really here on a mission. We are going to leave with everything on sale," said Steele. They have developed strategies that allow them to keep at it for hours, such as sitting in the massage chair at Brookstone for a break.

"In comparison to other Black Fridays, it's about the same [in terms of numbers]. The only thing I have heard is spending is better," said Leigh Bates, manager of the Towson Town Center. "I saw a lot of bags."

Bags was exactly what Nichole Knight had. She had deposited five large bags in front of a jewelry store in Westview and was agonizing over a gold bracelet for her mother.

"I'm almost finished. After lunch I'm going home to go to sleep," she said.

Staying true to retail tradition of the 1990s, shoppers everywhere said they were out to take advantage of the sales.

Outside the Kay-Bee Toy Store in the Harford Mall, Bonnie Barrett and her mother, Joan LeBrun, were celebrating a bargain on a hard-to-find Suzie Stretch doll they had found for $10 less than at a competing store.

But why had they picked yesterday to shop for the holidays?

"Because we're nuts," Barrett said. "But the sales are really good. It's really crowded, but the lines are moving fast, and everyone is being pretty nice.

"We usually don't shop today, but so far it's been a lot better than we thought."

Meanwhile, Tricia Howard and her sister visiting from Virginia watched as their five children took turns sitting for photographs on Santa's lap.

"We always do this," Howard said. "Montgomery Ward has all their toys at 50 percent off. I actually thought it would be less crowded than it is, though."

Nationwide, retail forecasters are predicting a 4 percent to 8 percent increase in revenues from last year, far better than the 2.8 percent increase of 1995 but still not outstanding.

Maryland State Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein predicted a 4.7 percent increase in sales and use taxes for November and December -- generating more than $290 million in revenues for the state budget.

Pub Date: 11/30/96

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