Shoppers set aside doubts, mob stores

Holidays: The busiest shopping season begins with stores crowded, but analysts expect it to be one of the worst in a decade for retailers.

November 24, 2001|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Ignoring signs of a slumping economy, Baltimore-area consumers went out to shop yesterday, the traditional start of the holiday season, mobbing stores and parking lots before dawn and snatching marked-down toys and consumer electronics from the shelves.

Hundreds of shoppers lined up in the early morning chill at Wal-Mart in Ellicott City to be the first in at 6 a.m., competing for a limited supply of $75 DVD players that sold out in less than an hour.

By noon, employees at KayBee Toys in Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis looked frazzled - many had been on duty since 5 a.m. - as a long line of shoppers snaked through the store, and crumpled advertisements and discarded toys littered the aisles.

At Toys `R' Us in Columbia, some shoppers waited an hour to check out, their carts filled with Pooh bears and Toy Story 2 action figures.

"My family said it was crazy to come out here," said Charlie Stevenson of Severn, buying a doll for his daughter at Toys `R' Us. "You have to come out realizing there will be long lines and not assume you will get everything you want. But I've gotten everything I wanted."

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and with the economy slowing, some shoppers said yesterday that they plan to spend more conservatively. But many said they feel secure in their jobs and don't plan to cut spending.

That won't necessarily translate into big profits for retailers, who are expected to slash prices more and earlier than they did last year.

Analysts say that this year's holiday season could be one of the worst for retailers since the 1991 recession because of deteriorating consumer confidence, rising unemployment, concern over job security and instability in the stock markets. Sales are expected to fall short of last year's at worst or to rise a disappointing 1.5 percent to 4 percent at best.

U.S. shoppers are planning to spend an average of $1,564 per household, 7 percent less than last year, on gifts, travel, decorations and other expenses, the American Express Retail Index found this week.

"I'm trying to cut back a little bit," said Linda Klein, a Baltimore County school bus driver who was shopping with her sister yesterday in Howard County. "I'm afraid to spend, with the war and the economy."

Shawn Turnquest, 28, of Miami also is watching his wallet. Turnquest's extended family - some relatives live in Maryland - arrived at Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis yesterday looking for early morning discounts. Turnquest, who owns a carwash business, said he is paying in cash this year instead of paying by credit card for big-ticket items.

"I'm holding off on some shopping this year so that I can make sure I have the money in the bank," he said.

Because they're spending less, some shoppers said, they needed to get out early yesterday and take advantage of sales.

Lynn King of Catonsville got to Wal-Mart at 4:30 a.m. and found a place near the front of the line. Her 1 1/2 -hour wait seemed to have been in vain when the doors opened and a crowd of latecomers who had gathered near the entrance slipped under the ropes and inside ahead of her. Undaunted, King headed for the sales on televisions, camcorders and bicycles.

"Then I'm going to go right back home and get in bed," she said.

Shoppers crammed the toy aisles with carts, grabbing Barbie gift sets for $8.88 and Cabbage Patch Kids for $10.

Elizabeth Housten of West Friendship got into the store just after 6 a.m. and found that the bicycle she wanted for her 4-year-old granddaughter had sold out.

"I expected it to be busy, but not like this," said L.J. Thomas, the store manager. "It looks like people are looking for bargains. This is a good indicator that it should be a good Christmas season."

Some area shoppers were lured as much by the early-bird specials and all-day sales yesterday as by the tradition of spending "Black Friday," as the start of the holiday shopping season is known, with the crowds in the malls.

Rocio Olguin and her mother, Rocio Safont, had made their annual trek from their home in Mexico City to visit friends in Howard County for Thanksgiving and to shop.

"Today are the best prices of the whole year," Olguin said while buying Power Rangers, compact discs, DVDs and Legos at Toys `R' Us in Columbia. Prices are better in the United States, she said.

Others were dragged to the stores. Deverin Lindsey, 20, was sipping coffee outside Wal-Mart at 5:45 a.m. while his wife and grandmother stood in line to buy the on-sale televisions and DVD players.

"I hate shopping," said Lindsey, chauffeur for the day. "The lines are outrageous."

Black Friday, which got its name from its ability to put retailers "in the black," begins a frenetic four weeks during which retailers can reap one-third of their yearly sales and half of their profits.

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