On your mark, get set, buy up those bargains Early specials rouse shoppers before dawn

November 29, 1997|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Dana Hedgpeth, Jackie Powder, Lisa Respers, Melody Simmons and Cheryl Tan contributed to this article.

Before sunrise, shoppers sprinted across the parking lot at Montgomery Ward, hunting Giga Pets. They lined up by the hundreds at the Wal-Mart in Glen Burnie at 6 a.m., ready to burst through the doors. And at Kay-Bee Toys in Security Square Mall, early risers grabbed Barbie Gift Pack Fashions by the armload.

With visions of half-price sales and giveaways, holiday shoppers throughout the Baltimore area bolted for stores yesterday at a feverish pace, hoping to check names off Christmas gift lists -- before the specials ran out.

On a cold, dreary day, while the rest of her family slept, Loretta Skirvin crept from her house in Catonsville and headed to Kay-Bee Toys at Security Square, where she darted down aisles plucking Barbie outfits and Ken dolls off the shelves.

"I don't usually do this -- come out the day after Thanksgiving -- but these look like good deals," said Skirvin.

"I'm just going to do this and get out of here."

At about 5 a.m., hundreds of people began gathering outside the Glen Burnie Wal-Mart on Crain Highway, forming a line that was four people wide and stretched for about 100 yards.

When the store's "blitz" sale began at 6 a.m., "People were

taking shopping carts and running down the aisles," said Craig Lowry, a manager.

"It was like a foot race. I guess if you get up at four o'clock in the morning just to get something, you're going to get it."

Lowry said the most popular items -- hundreds of electronic Giga Pets going for $10 each and about 200 $99.96 VCRs and 13-inch televisions -- sold out within an hour and a half -- and with only one tussle.

Two women reached for a 13-inch television at the same time, and one hit the other and loaded the TV into her own cart, Lowry said.

At Montgomery Ward in Security Square Mall, shoppers swarmed a section of Giga Pets -- which must be "fed" and cared for like a real animal by pressing buttons -- and anxiously pulled the toys off small, metal hooks.

In less than 10 minutes, shoppers had practically emptied the shelves.

In spite of the early morning frenzy, "Black Friday" has in recent years lost its distinction as the year's biggest shopping day.

"There are a lot of people in the malls, but there is not nearly as much shopping," said Kenneth Gassman, a retail analyst with Davenport & Co.

"It is the traditional contest between merchants and shoppers to see who can out wait the other, and whoever blinks first loses.

"Typically," he said, "the merchant blinks first and marks goods down."

Because of that, the last three days before Christmas have replaced Black Friday as the biggest shopping period.

With Christmas sales accounting for up to 40 percent of a retailer's annual profit, the four-week season can make the difference between a good year and bad year.

Most analysts have been calling for a solid, if not stunning, season this year, driven by solid job and income growth, strong consumer confidence and an abundance of bargains.

The International Council of Shopping Centers, based on its annual survey of retail analysts, predicted yesterday that sales would be up 4.5 percent this year, while other estimates ranged from an increase of 2.5 percent to 7 percent.

Yesterday, merchants reported morning sales ranging from steady to spectacular.

Gil DeWitt, the manager at Littman Jewelers in Westminster's Cranberry Mall, reported record-breaking business.

"I've never been so busy this early," said DeWitt, who said that by noon yesterday he had reached his average daily sales total of $20,000.

"We've been running good sales; people are pleased with the prices," said Enid Levy, a sales associate at Belk department store, also in Cranberry Mall.

Levy, a 12-year veteran of Black Fridays, said some of the biggest sellers in her department -- casual sportswear -- were chenille sweaters, nylon wind suits and turtlenecks.

Apparel is expected to be joined by computers -- especially systems selling for about $1,000 this year -- in a solid selling season.

"We are very busy," said Jerry Greenberg, general manager of CompUSA's Towson store, who treated his employees to a turkey dinner as a way to kick off the busy work period.

In All Wound Up, one of four temporary holiday stores in The Mall in Columbia, the shrills of small children and beeping toys overwhelmed the store's employees.

Keeping batteries in each toy and keeping small plastic toy parts off the floor proved to be quite a challenge.

"We've been open since 8 a.m., and it's been packed," said Debbie Ross, store manager. "People are out with a mission in mind."

At Owings Mills Town Center, traffic grew steadily throughout the day, with the parking lots at about 90 percent capacity by midafternoon, said Michael Khouri, vice president and general manager.

"We're seeing a lot of shopping bags," he said. "People are getting out early and looking for the right item at the right price and taking advantage of it now."

For some, the annual trek to the malls has become as traditional as Thanksgiving dinner.

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