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Feverish festivities — Thousands jam stores as holiday shopping season begins

SHARE Feverish festivities — Thousands jam stores as holiday shopping season begins

MURRAY — At just before 1 a.m. Friday, Jessica Taylor's face showed her frustration as she bumped and jostled her way through wall-to-wall people at Fashion Place mall.

That's right, 1 a.m.

"If we don't buy something in the next 20 minutes, we're going to leave," Taylor told three other empty-handed women she came with for the mall's midnight opening. "I'm not sure the prices outweigh this — the people, the chaos."

In what was a unique move Friday in Utah and a sign of an emerging post-Thanksgiving Day trend among malls around the country, Fashion Place opened its doors at 12 a.m. to kick off the Christmas shopping season.

That's because malls have begun gunning for a share of the big-box holiday crowd.

"We realized in order to try and get shoppers to come to the mall first, we had to open sooner," said Tamara DeMilt, Fashion Place's senior marketing manager.

The quarry this year is an anticipated 7.5 percent increase in holiday retail sales over last year's numbers, according to Visa USA. Tactics on how to capture those sales are getting more aggressive.

Many Wal-Marts are already open 24 hours a day, offering holiday deals well in advance of "Black Friday," a day when retailers begin to move from the fiscal red, signifying losses, into their most profitable time of the year.

Throughout the nation, stores like Kmart and CompUSA were open on Thanksgiving Day, according to CNN. Fashion Place's wee-hours welcome mat drew the interest of the New York Times, which was there to witness retail history.

For Sara Homer, manager of a Down East Basics kiosk that was selling women's T-shirts, the mall's odd starting time seemed worth it.

"I had no idea so many people would be waiting outside," Homer said as she readied for the surge. "I'm pleasantly surprised by the turnout."

Rush hour

Friday's mall crowd was supposed to go through one entrance at the food court, filing past the aroma of Mexican and Chinese food. But in another concourse, someone accidentally opened an entrance and thousands came streaming through just before midnight.

The initial rush was mostly teenagers, running and screaming through the mall, which stayed open until 10 p.m. Friday.

"It was crazy," said Denise Castaneda, 20, whose arm and stomach were hurt when she was slammed into a door by a wave of shoppers as they shoved and pushed their way into the mall at the main entrance.

"I tried to push myself off. By the time I got out, all these people were running and falling," she said. "It was crazy."

The marketing logo for the mall's "Rockin' Shoppin' Eve" was a coffee cup, a reminder of the free java and hot cocoa available to all.

Trendy shops like Aeropostale, which held a 50 percent-off-everything sale, were quickly jammed by 12:10 a.m. Cedar City resident Laura Lewis, there with her 9-week-old son and other family members, escaped that store with a few bargains in the bag.

Express soon limited entry into its store by telling people to wait outside until enough customers finished shopping inside. That store gave away free hats and handbags.

Shane Ward was bombarded at the mall's customer service desk, where he and others handed out 800 free DVDs, which included multiple copies of the 1971 James Garner flick "A Man Called Sledge" and the 1974 "California Split," a movie about gambling that starred George Segal and Elliott Gould.

With giveaways and deals at over 100 shops (the mall's four anchors were not open), long lines formed outside stores such as Vanity, where one woman said she was waiting for a free gift, although she had no idea what it was. By 1 a.m., multitudes still inched and shuffled their way through the mall.

Just how many were there? "Thousands and thousands, that's all I can say," DeMilt said.

Early-bird sales

As people in pajamas and teens on cell phones mixed it up in the mall, up the road at a Best Buy, the parking lot was filling up at 1:10 a.m., and shoppers literally camped out for the best deals.

Park City's Tanger Outlet Center had stores opening at 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. to offer "door-buster" promotions such as 10 percent off purchases of $150 or more until 10 a.m. at Calvin Klein and 15 percent off at Anne Taylor.

Macy's at the ZCMI Center in downtown Salt Lake City was open at 6 a.m., to the tune of about 50 shoppers. By 8 a.m., an employee said traffic in the store was on par with last year's pace. That mall is slated for demolition to make way for a 20-acre, $1.5 billion redevelopment project, but will remain open during the holidays.

At Circuit City in Salt Lake City, 15-year-old Mike Abernethy Jr. was the first in line at 1 p.m. Thursday for the store's 5 a.m. opening. Last year at this time, he was after the same thing, a sale on a computer, but he took his place in line at 1 a.m.

"And we didn't get anything," Abernethy said at 4:30 a.m.

About 1,000 people stormed Circuit City's front doors, in search of one- and two-gigabyte memory cards for $15 and $30, $99 laptop computers, cheap televisions and freebies.

"It's going to be a huge day today," store manager Delores Baker cheered to her staff of 45, which would grow to 65 by 11 a.m. A normal Friday staff requires about 12 employees.

With most seemingly oblivious to the store's decorations and holiday music, Baker declined to talk much about whether any meaning of Christmas was present inside Circuit City.

"Christmas is something different to everybody," she said.

As Mike Abernethy left the store, holding boxes that included his computer, free printer and free digital camera (with purchases over $249), there was no question how he was feeling.

"I'm happy," he said. "I got all the free stuff."

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com