Originally created 11/28/98

Shopping season begins



Bargain-hungry Christmas shoppers turned out in droves to take advantage of post-Thanksgiving Day sales in metro Augusta on Friday.

At Best Buy in the Augusta West Plaza, they were beating down the doors -- literally.

Customers began lining up outside at 5:45 a.m. for their chance to grab one of the 25 IBM 300 computer packages on sale for $599. Dozens had showed up by the time doors opened at 7 a.m., said store manager Trever Michels.

"They knocked the door off the hinges sprinting to the back of the store," he said. "There was a line all the way out the back of the complex."

The computer package that was supposed to be on sale until noon was sold out within minutes. Checkout lines stretched back to the music department by mid-morning as store employees began dispensing cookies and other snacks to the masses.

Everyone remained civil but the looks on some customers' faces expressed everything but pleasure.

"This is crazy," said Augusta resident John Rodgers, standing at the back of a line 30 people deep. "It's like this every year, but what are you going to do? I guess you have to if you want the good deals."

Others, like Evans resident Julie Smith, were more upbeat. She said she managed to take care of half her shopping list at nearby Kitchen & Company, whose large "going out of business" banner attracted her to the store.

"I just figured they would have really good prices since they were, you know, going out of business," she said. "I'm just trying to get all this over with today."

Store management declined to comment about their expectations, but a recent rebound in consumer confidence has most retailers expecting holiday sales to be up 3 percent to 5 percent.

Holiday sales are critical to most retailers because that's when their largest percentage of sales are made.

"The day after Thanksgiving can make or break a store's profit," Mr. Michels said.

Most stores are operating on special hours, opening as early as 6 a.m. and closing at 10 p.m. or later.

In Aiken, Belk's and Kay-Bee Toys opened at 6 a.m. in the Aiken Mall, where about 250 people were waiting in line for the doors to open, according to mall property manager Mike Hoofman.

Other stores opened at 7 to heavy crowds, and shopping remained steady all day.

"We've been busy since early this morning," Mr. Hoofman said. "We were surprised and delighted."

Mass merchandisers, which rank only second to department stores as holiday retail hot spots, also did brisk business. Crowds waited outside locked doors at the Aiken K-mart in anticipation of its 70 percent-off sale 6 a.m. to 11 a.m.

A recent American Express retail survey showed the average consumer will spend $914 on gifts this year, a 35 percent increase from 1997. Only 5 percent of those consumers surveyed said they would spend less money this year.

About 60 percent of that largess goes to toys, the survey states. A good portion of that will likely be spent on this year's hot toy: Furby.

The furry, gremlin-like talking doll is this year's Tickle Me Elmo. Augusta's Toys R' Us Store Manager Sonia Tucker said the $29 toy has been a must have because it is much cheaper than other interactive toys on the market.

But the store only has two-dozen Furbys in stock each morning, so most of the 200 people who showed up at 6 a.m. Friday never had a chance.

"Only the first few got one," Ms. Tucker said.

Unlike the Cabbage Patch Kids craze of the early 1980s, which saw baseball bat-wielding parents fighting in the aisles for the last doll, no civil unrest has been caused by Furby shortage.

"We haven't had anything like that happen, thank God," Ms. Tucker said.

While the day after Thanksgiving used to be the top shopping day of the year, consumers now are browsing more early in the holiday season and waiting longer to buy.

Top ten shopping days for 1997

In terms of money spent, these were the 10 top shopping days in 1997, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

1. Saturday, Dec. 20.

2. Monday, Dec. 22.

3. Tuesday, Dec. 23.

4. Saturday, Dec 13.

5. Sunday, Dec 21.

6. Wednesday, Dec. 24.

7. Friday, Nov. 28. (The day after Thanksgiving)

8. Friday, Dec. 29.

9. Saturday, Dec. 6.

10. Sunday, Dec. 21.

Staff Writer Margaret O'Shea contributed to this report.

Damon Cline covers business issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3486.