Pandemonium Among The Purses

Police intervene and C-Mart briefly closes to restore order when customers' lust for half-price bags gets out of hand


Hundreds of shoppers lined up yesterday, starting before dawn, for a rare chance to snag deeply discounted high-end handbags at C-Mart in Joppatowne.

Then the fighting began.

The sale was halted and the doors locked for hours after the crowd exploded in anger over the store's attempt to manage the flow of nearly 1,000 customers through the quirky Harford County retailer. The sheriff's office was called in to restore order.

The event had been promoted for months, and shoppers - mostly women - descended from across the region for a chance to save hundreds of dollars on purses from designers such as Prada, Chanel and Gucci.

But when the numbered-ticket system devised to ensure orderly entry of shoppers into the store failed, the mood among shoppers turned from giddy to irate.

The pushing and shoving and heated complaints to store management prompted a call to the Harford County Sheriff's Office. It dispatched nearly 20 deputies to restore peace among the estimated crowd of 1,000 shoppers, and the store shut down for several hours to regroup.

"The deputy on the scene said it was very unusual to see women fighting over purses," said Lt. Jim Eyler, a spokesman with the Harford County Sheriff's Office. There were no injuries or arrests.

C-Mart Vice President Keith Silberg said, "It was a lot of people, more than we expected, and at a certain point, our interest became keeping people safe."

The handbags being offered yesterday rarely go on sale. In some cases, half off could mean saving hundreds of dollars.

For example, the Dolce & Gabbana "Miss Superstar" eel skin tote retails for about $2,250 in fine department stores. A medium-sized Gucci shoulder bag, with the signature interlocking G's, goes for about $1,300. One of Marc Jacobs' least expensive bags - a calfskin zip clutch about the size of a tape dispenser - is $375.

"It's every kind a girl dreams of," Carrye Campbell, 26, from New Market, said of the selection.

The first customers in line said they arrived about 3 a.m. By 10 o'clock, when the doors opened and employees began handing out numbered tickets, at least 700 people were queued up.

Some waited on folding chairs with coffee and blankets. Others paced back and forth, reporting line-cutters to store employees. Most were women, but many brought boyfriends or husbands to subvert the two-handbag-per-customer limit.

At first, the ticket method worked. But pushing and shoving began near the handbag section, set off by shelves and tables near the front of the store. Those in line watched as the first waves of shoppers pulled bags off shelves, modeled them in mirrors and walked out with their purchases.

C-Mart employees stood atop tables, yelling "Move back!" through bullhorns to the crowd. But the crowd heaved closer as the stock of bags became depleted.

About 11 a.m., after about 75 shoppers had purchased bags and left, customers noticed that the numbered tickets had been distributed out of sequence, with early-arrivers having received higher-numbered tickets than shoppers who came later.

C-Mart employees scrambled to correct that. Silberg announced that ticket numbers would be announced in reverse, until the order was righted. About an hour later, Silberg learned from screaming customers that the mix-up was more extensive.

So about noon, Silberg announced that the only fair thing to do was to let people in five at a time according to their proximity to the front of the crowd. More screaming and shoving ensued, escalating as frantic women tried to get to the front.

"They were just letting whoever was near go, and people were pushing to the front," said Stephanie Silva, 18, of Belcamp.

Rajshawn Scott, 39, a C-Mart shopper who owns a nightclub, said that when the shoving began, she did what comes naturally. "I had to do what I do in security: I had to push 'em back," the Washington, D.C., resident said.

Worried about the safety of customers and employees, Silberg ordered the store closed until 4 p.m., when he would reopen and hand out a new set of tickets.

"Hell, no!!" some women yelled. "False advertising!" others threatened. "I'm going to sue!"

Silberg offered to buy hamburgers for shoppers to eat while they waited outside. But many had driven long distances - some as far away as rural Virginia - and some dug in their heels and would not leave the store.

That's when Silberg called the police. The 18 officers arrived at 12:08 p.m., according to Eyler, the police spokesman.

Inside, employees restocked shelves and displays that had been knocked over during the fracas. About a dozen reboxed shoes and hung clothes back up.

"This is one of those kind of sales that happens a few times in a business like ours' history," Silberg said, adding later that about 1,500 of the 2,000 bags had been sold by early evening.

Rather than retreat, many customers got right back in line. At 1 p.m., three hours before the store was to reopen, the line again began to crawl along the front side of the store's exterior, which was littered with trash like the outside of a concert venue.

This time things went better, said Lt. Keith Warner of the Southern Precinct in Edgewood.

Customers were admitted in small groups to browse what was left at sundown. Despite the physical hazards, spending a day standing in line and a depleted selection, they were undeterred.

"We still want our bags," said Scott.

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