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For shoppers, the hunt is on



Published: Fri, November 23, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



STAFF/WIRE REPORT

The initial rush was over by 8 a.m. and the last sale stereo was taped in a box at Big Lots near the Eastwood Mall complex in Niles, where shoppers began lining up at 4 a.m.

"This is my first year," said Eddy Bloxson of Oklahoma as he waited for the stereo to be packaged.

He was in the area to visit his mother on Youngstown's East Side.

"I should have been here earlier today," he said. "I almost missed out."

The lull at the checkout lines would only be temporary, said Bryan Reese, Big Lots manager.

"You get the 6 a.m. people that are here for the deals," he said.

"Now, we'll get the normal people, who come in for 10 a.m. shopping."

Lining up: Bargain hunters kicked off the holiday shopping season at retail stores throughout the Mahoning and Shenango valleys this morning, wearing mostly smiles -- and outerwear to stay warm.

Pre-dawn lines circled Wal-Mart, Kmart, Best Buy and other stores at Southern Park Mall in Boardman and Eastwood Mall in Niles that had advertised discounts to those willing to brave the early morning mania on what is traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year.

Bob Comstock of Boardman, with red cheeks and full winter dress, was at the head of a line outside Best Buy store on U.S. Route 224.

The store opened at 7 a.m., but Comstock and three friends arrived at 11 p.m. Thursday to make sure they were the first in line.

The long lines and overnight camping outside of stores is a yearly thing for Comstock, who said it's the best way to get an early jump on Christmas shopping for his kids.

Krystye Evans, also with the overnight group of four, said the savings are worth a night out in the cold.

"We are going to save a bunch of money on whatever we buy," Evans said. "Since I am a poor college student, I can use it."

Less optimistic: Shoppers waiting toward the end of the line were not as optimistic.

Joanne Vecchiarelli of Poland and Renard Smith of Youngstown, who were next to each other in line, said that judging by the number of people ahead of them, they had little hope of finding what they wanted.

Both had been in line for more than an hour and decided the invested time meant they should wait it out.

Boardman's Kmart manager Bob Bowen said that store had more than 200 people waiting in line before its doors opened at 5 a.m. He expected several thousand patrons.

By 6 a.m., the lines inside had not slowed down, and the double entrance doors that open and close automatically were constantly open with shoppers either running in or heading out, shopping carts filled.

Emma Nelson and her daughter Cheryl Smith, both of Youngstown, were heading across the parking lot loaded with sale items.

Nelson pushed a full buggy while checking a 12-inch long receipt, and Smith carried packages too large to fit in the buggy.

Both said it was a first-time shopping event but wouldn't be the last.

Having fun: Tami Lindsay of Cortland was equally enthusiastic:

"The sales, the free stuff you get," she said, explaining why she was out at 6 a.m.

She was headed into the Target store behind Eastwood Mall in Niles, shopping for her daughter and two sons.

"It's fun ... it gets you in the Christmas season," she said.

She had already been to Wal-Mart in Warren at 5 a.m.

Hundreds waited for toy and other stores to open, some at 6, others at 6:30 or 7 a.m.

"The way people are spending money, you can't tell me there's a recession," said Rick Jenkins, manager of the Eastwood Target store.

Jenkins said there were 300 people lined up for his opening at 7 a.m., many waiting for electronics that had been advertised Thursday at low sale prices.

Disturbance: The crowd was friendly and well-behaved, he said. Two shoppers there, however, said Trumbull County deputy sheriffs were called to a store on Elm Road to quell a disturbance caused by people trying to cut into line.

Kim Timbers, general manager of the Sears store at Eastwood, expected to do $400,000 worth of business today. The normal take is about $60,000, she said.

In demand: At Target, the big item was a stereo CD boom box advertised for $50.

Bernadette McNeal of Lordstown managed to claim hers before supplies ran out, but she lost her two sisters in the process.

"They're probably trapped," she said as she stood with her buggy near the checkout line, "but it's OK; we got the stereo," she said.

She makes the pre-dawn shopping trip with her family every year.

"We like the challenge," she said.

Other shoppers did not fare quite as well.

Roland Devers of Howland failed to find the talking dump truck he was sent to fetch at Toys "R" Us in the Eastwood complex for his 2-year-old grandson, Coby.

"I found the place they had been, but they were sold out," he said.

He wasn't ready yet to call the day a waste; he headed for Sears before going home for his morning coffee.

Across the country: Nationally, retailers were saying: Conspicuous consumption is out. Practical items are in.

The economy and war news are reshaping shopping habits. Now, many Americans are looking for the equivalent of comfort food when they hit the malls. Merchants say frivolity is out; gifts have to have more meaning.

"People want to give something important," said Tracy Mullin, the president of the National Retail Federation in Washington.

Forecast: Unfortunately, analysts don't expect these good intentions to make up for people's concerns about the economy.

In a recent survey, the accounting firm Deloitte & amp; Touche found that twice as many Americans plan to cut back on their holiday spending as plan to increase it.

The firm now forecasts that holiday sales will be about the same as last year or up only slightly -- not the modest gains many had hoped for not long ago. "It's going to be a tough holiday season," says Irwin Cohen, a Deloitte & amp; Touche partner.

Still, merchants' outlook has brightened a bit in recent weeks.

In September, retail sales sagged in the wake of the terrorist attacks, anthrax scares and high-profile layoff announcements. The University of Michigan consumer-confidence index plunged.

Upswing: But in October, consumers started buying cars because of zero-interest financing. Now, Richard Curtin, director of the University of Michigan consumer surveys, expects the worst to be over as Americans start to feel better about the U.S. gains in Afghanistan and the economy. On Wednesday, his survey showed that confidence edged up in November.

Some of that optimism -- and even patriotic spending -- is reflected in the malls around Houston.

Coming out of a Target store on a recent morning, Fred Thomas says Sept. 11 and the downturn in the economy have certainly affected his spending habits: He is spending more than he usually does for the holidays.

"We are trying to help out the economy," he said, hefting a bag into the car. His list of gift purchases includes electronics, clothing and housewares. "It's easier to tell you where we haven't shopped than where we have."

Items for home: Increasingly this holiday period, Americans are spending more time shopping in places that provide goods for the hearth and home. The 106-store Crate & amp; Barrel chain says it is experiencing good sales so far. Part of this, says Bette Kahn, a spokeswoman, is that people are not traveling as much and instead are inviting friends and family over for meals. "They need bigger pans, more glasses, new dishes," she said.

In Houston, Jessie and Matt Larson emerged from a Crate & amp; Barrel with a box full of kitchen gadgets for a family member. Their jobs are safe, they weren't personally affected by the terrorist attacks and they want to share their generosity with the people they love. "So we're not going to cut back on our spending," said Jessie Larson.




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