San Luis Obispo County shoppers seem to be putting recession behind on Black Friday

Black Friday brought out the Christmas wreaths, Santa posters, door-buster bargains, deep dazzling discounts and customers filling the aisles at stores around San Luis Obispo County. But the recession might have taken away some of the usual post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy.

“I’m trying to be smarter, more selective,” said Katie Mock, as she came out of the Best Buy appliance and electronics store in San Luis Obispo about 11 a.m. Friday. Holding one purchase, a laptop computer at a discounted price of $229, she added, “I ask, do I really need this?”

She and her companion, Phil Derasmo, who did the research for the purchase online, were in and out of the store in less than 10 minutes, she added.

Retailers know their customers have changed, according to Joseph Scott, general manager of Prime Outlets Pismo Beach.

“People are still buying, but the value equation is with us now,” Scott said. “They’re not just putting stuff on their credit cards; they’re looking for discounts and making smarter decisions.”

Some retailers who are targeting budget shoppers claim that the number of customers coming through their doors has never been better.

Angela Smalley, manager of the Old Navy clothing store in San Luis Obispo, said she had three times as many people in line for the 3 a.m. opening this year than last year. At 10 a.m., people were still crammed in the store, with at least 40 people in line at the cash register.

“I’ve been here since 2007,” Smalley said. “It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen. … Last year, it wasn’t anything like this.”

Likewise, the Kohl’s department store, which replaced Mervyn’s in the Madonna Plaza this year, had more than 115 bargain shoppers waiting in line for a cash register, holding pillows, bath mats, Snuggie body blankets and other merchandise.

Customers seemed happy with their discounts and did not seem to mind the wait.

“I don’t usually do Black Friday. … I prefer to shop more online,” said Barbara Derrick of Los Osos, who bought a bag of housewares from Kohl’s. “But it actually only took me about 20 minutes to get through. Now I got what I need, and I’m going home.”

Retailers say the organized and controlled customer is exactly what they want.

This would be in contrast to some of last year’s mayhem, such as a stampede at a Walmart store on New York’s Long Island. At the store’s opening, shoppers broke down the doors and then trampled a 34-year-old seasonal maintenance worker, Nassau police said.

This year, Walmart stores stayed open on Thanksgiving day, starting its discounts on Friday a few seconds after midnight. Some stores also had special-event security staff on hand in case crowds got out of control.

Jim and Janet Bigelow of Arroyo Grande, who went to Walmart at midnight for the discounts, said they liked the change. They used the “doorbuster” discounts to buy a 50-inch plasma television set and Christmas gifts for their family. They then went home to sleep, and returned later in the morning to pick up their merchandise.

“This year, it was actually pleasant shopping and the lines were small,” Janet Bigelow said. “Last year, I had to stand in line at the cash register for two hours.”

Deanna and Rick Soderholm of San Luis Obispo, who once stood in line at the Arroyo Grande Walmart with a couple hundred people for the early Black Friday rush at 5 a.m., chose this year to start their shopping at 8 a.m. They said that was a lot better.

Waiting in line was “incredibly cold and uncomfortable,” Deanna Soderholm said. “This year, if we didn’t get the stuff we wanted at a discount, then we figured it just wasn’t meant to be.”

At Best Buy in San Luis Obispo, the store kept shoppers organized by giving the first 50 customers in line wristbands for “doorbuster” discounts, instead of tickets as they had in prior years. Inside, the cash-register lines were redrawn so that as many as 15 checkers could ring up purchases, store Manager Ron Rich said.

“The customers were very orderly, they’re not rushing and they’re more on point with what they want,” Rich said. “We streamlined the process so they can get what they need, and we felt like we had it under control.”

It is too early to tell if retailers overall will have attracted a high enough volume of customers with their deep discounts to put themselves in the black this year. The National Retail Federation won’t have any estimates available on how much shoppers spent over the Black Friday weekend, and where they shopped, until the beginning of next week. Retailers typically count on the three days after Thanksgiving for nearly 10 percent of their holiday sales, according to a 2007 estimate by the National Retail Federation.

Some, such as Scott of the Pismo Beach outlets, say it feels like business is a lot better than last year, but they’re not overly optimistic.

“There is a new consumer out there,” Scott said. “And sales may stay flat for a while, but I’ll take it. Nowadays we’re thinking of flat as the new up.”