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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, November 24, 2001

Hard times don't dampen ardor of Hawai'i shoppers

 •  Holiday shopping frenzy begins
 •  Macy's launches new era of Hawai'i retailing

By Katherine Nichols and John Duchemin
Advertiser Staff Writers

Hawai'i residents and retailers kicked off the first major day of the holiday shopping season at the decidedly unfestive hour of 5 a.m. yesterday, and few appeared to have heard the news that the state is in the middle of an economic downturn.

Foreign student Rain Xiao takes a break to rest against husband Gaofeng Cai after a long day of shopping at Ala Moana Center.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Layoffs, business closures and an ailing visitor industry — a daily staple since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 — did not keep shoppers at home or dull their enthusiasm for spending. At stores across the state, thousands happily toted full bags through blinking holiday decorations and tinny Muzak, a full 32 shopping days until Christmas.

Many stores were packed, early and often. By 4:30 a.m., the line at KB Toys at Kahala Mall snaked all the way out to Star Market. Once the doors opened, some shoppers used walkie-talkies to keep in touch with their partners; others dragged plastic bags the size of trash cans filled with merchandise. A 45-minute-long checkout line wrapped the nearby interior of the mall.

At the Disney Store at Ala Moana Center a line began forming at 4 a.m. for those on a quest for a limited edition Winnie-the-Pooh beanie. The collectors did not seem to mind that the store did not open until 8 a.m.

At KB Toys in Ala Moana Center early-bird shoppers began queuing up at 3 a.m.

"Today has been a pleasant surprise," said Jon Kawata, store manager at Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Pearlridge Center, where traffic was still lined up for blocks around the mall entrance in the early afternoon.

Kawata said that as of midafternoon, the store was on track to beat last year's day-after-Thanksgiving sales — thanks partly to steep discounts and partly to heavy customer traffic that started when the store opened at 6 a.m.

"We've still got our fingers crossed, but this could be the indicator for the rest of the holiday season," Kawata said.

The crowds provided a ray of hope for retailers in an otherwise grim economy. With measures of consumer confidence falling, many have been bracing for the gloomiest holiday season in years. Most yesterday said sales were better than expected — about even with last year — and that customers seemed to be responding to massive price cuts.

The question now, some analysts and retailers said, is whether shoppers will continue to spend. Yesterday, however, the sheer number of shoppers with purchased items was a welcome sight.

A bird's-eye view of the parking areas at Ala Moana Shopping Center shows few empty spaces for the thousands of shoppers.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Mae Lambert and her granddaughter, Michelle Okamura, got to KB Toys at 6:30 a.m. It took 45 minutes to get inside and even longer to get out. "But it was worth it," Lambert said.

The two women had a long list of stores to visit. Making purchases seemed the right thing to do this year. "We'll shop," Lambert said. "We have to find some peace and contentment and still continue our lives."

But many Hawai'i shoppers were mixed on whether they would be spending more or less this season.

"Everyone has had a few months to be depressed, and now people are getting sick and tired of all that," said Jim Todd, a retiree who was queued up to pay for a computer mouse and some read/write CDs at the downtown CompUSA. "So I figure we, and everyone, will be spending as much or more than usual."

Daniel Decker, a truck driver from 'Ewa Beach, took the day off so he and his family could hunt down bargains. He was pretty sure that people would shop.

"They may scale back, but I don't think they will be stopped," Decker said. "I think the holiday season will take over. ... We planned on budgeting, but you want to get people the things they want."

On Maui, Michelle Tabisula of Kahului said recent events won't affect her Christmas budget. In fact, she expects to spend more this year because she's starting earlier. "Last year I waited until the week before Christmas," she said. Tabisula, a family facilitator with a nonprofit agency, arrived at 8 a.m. to shop at Ka'ahumanu Center.

But more cautious was Kinney Lemmon , a construction laborer who was with his wife and two youngsters buying insurance for his car in Hilo yesterday. "We'll spend less this year (on gifts)," said Lemmon, who changed jobs earlier this year.

Still, traffic was heavy at shopping centers around the state. Windward Mall in Kane'ohe enjoyed a busy day, though retailers said the mall attracted fewer customers than the major Leeward shopping centers. Joelyn Aldridge, a manager at the Windward branch of Spencer Gifts, said her store was on track to meet its goal of beating last year's sales.

"There have been lots of events here and extra sales, and people are coming for those," Aldridge said. The store had two sales at the same time — an ongoing clearance sale and a temporary 50-percent-off "yellow tag" sale.

Neighbor island retailers were generally upbeat. On the Big Island, Kuhio Plaza shoppers said the newly unveiled Macy's had 250 or more shoppers waiting for the doors to open. At nearby Borders, four-year manager Ken Moir said sales so far this year are up and he believes any fallout from Sept. 11 was short-lived. "We are prepared for a great holiday season," he said.

On Maui, it is the first holiday with a Wal-Mart, which had a an advance sale from midnight to 5 a.m., with a sales "blitz" at 6 a.m. that drew hundreds. "This is our first year, and I think it's going to be great," said store manager Ted Sells. Hot sellers were futon beds and "tons of toys," he said.

But Jarett Chytka, assistant manager at Big Kmart in Kahului — just a few blocks from Wal-Mart — said the store also had a steady stream of customers all day. About 30 shoppers were waiting when the store opened at 5 a.m. Hot sellers included a Nintendo Game Cube for $200, futons for $99 and toys.

"It won't be as good as last year, but it'll be better than we expected," he said of the holiday sales season. "People are still going out and purchasing gifts. I don't think (Sept. 11) is going to affect us out here that much."

If this pattern holds, retailers who had seen their cash flows battered in the slow shopping following Sept. 11 should be able to survive this holiday season, said Carol Pregill, executive director of Retail Merchants of Hawaii.

"What happened today is what we hoped would happen," Pregill said yesterday afternoon. "We were concerned that people would be more concerned about losing their jobs than about shopping. But it seems that there has been an inching upward of confidence — people are feeling more secure."

Ann Otani, regional manager for LeSportsac in Kahala, said the crowds were about the same as those on previous day-after-Thanksgiving sales.

"There was a lot of traffic, a lot of bustling," she said, calling sales brisk. "I believe the local people are still in the spirit. They have the aloha in them. It's in our culture to give."

At 6 a.m. Cindy and Jo-Ann Kaita of 'Ewa Beach had only begun their ritual day-after-Thanksgiving shopping — a strategic affair. "At Thanksgiving we eat," they said, "but we also plan and make lists." The two sisters said they were stocking up for children's birthdays as well.

"We're trying to find more bargains, they said. "After this, we're going to Toys R Us. It will probably be insane."

Scott Metcalf, a Nu'uanu resident who used to be in retail sales for Nordstrom shoes, filled two bags at nearby JC Penney's before Macy's Ala Moana opened its doors at 7 a.m.

He was there with his two daughters because he wanted to see the store succeed.

"Times are tough," Metcalf said. "People should be like me and be buying. The more we can help each other out, the better things will be."

Advertiser staff writers Mike Gordon, Christie Wilson and Hugh Clark contributed to this report.