Shoppers have that boxed-in feeling Superstores luring buyers, creating a crush at Christmas


Si-i-lent night. Ho-o-ly night. All is not calm. The fluorescent lights are bright.

Round yon parking lot, shopper and child. Hole-y wallets, charge cards fly wild.

Welcome to east Columbia, where mega-shopping happened at mega-stores this holiday season.

Target, Best Buy, Borders Books & Music, Hechinger and so on " -- the huge, gleaming shopping venues known as big-box stores -- lured customers to their wide aisles in biblical proportions.

It is a sight to behold: Women juggling overcoats, handbags and whining children as they drag a dozen books and a half-dozen compact discs to the cashier at Borders. Men holding video games and stereo equipment as they stand uncomfortably among the lingerie aisles at Target looking utterly panicked. Children, escapees from shopping parents, elbowing one another over computer games at Best Buy.

All standing in line to spend $50, $100, $500 a pop.

"It's pretty much insane," says Debra Guseman, manager at Target, where busy days bring in more than $200,000 in sales receipts.

Among the most popular items at Target: Fingernail Fun, Super Nintendo and Talking Woody Dolls. At one point, the waiting list for Tickle Me Elmo dolls topped 160, Guseman said.

"We get them in and they are gone off the shelves within about two hours," she says. "People call in and want to know how early they can come in. And they're here waiting at the door when we pull up at 8 [a.m.]"

Most stores extended their hours for the holidays, but Toys 'R' Us took the record for longest hours: 8 a.m. to midnight every day.

After-work hours are busiest, store managers say, but stores can become jammed with shoppers at any hour.

But, in typical big-box style, long cash-register lines moved quickly and efficiently with as many as 22 cashiers working at once.

Across from Target at the Snowden River shopping center, the )) frenzy continues as strains of "Jingle Bells" and "Here Comes Santa Claus" waft through the wide, shiny aisles.

"Oh, yeah, this is what Christmas is all about, isn't it?" grimaces Stephen Beltran as he browses among bed linens and napkin rings at Bed, Bath & Beyond. "But at least these stores make it easier. I can just go down the row [of stores] and cross off the whole list."

But Beltran, a computer consultant who lives in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village, soon encounters the quintessential big-box dilemma: too many choices.

Fingering fancy kitchen gadgets, he tries to remember which items his wife wants.

JTC He soon gives up and turns toward the specialty bath gels -- only to be faced with the choice among Rose, Evergreen and Winter Fresh scents.

He slumps his shoulders in frustration.

At Borders Books, shoppers carrying three and four coffee-table books push to the new fiction tables looking for more to buy.

"Have you read this?" asks one shopper to another as a child tugs on her sleeve.

"Mom, it's boring in here," the child whines. "When are we leaving? I'm starving to death."

Popular gift selections at the mega-book-music store included Michael Crichton's latest thriller, Oprah Winfrey's fitness books and -- a surprise to store manager Amy Dearborn -- a book titled "Down in the Garden" by baby photographer Anne Geddes.

"Ah, these babies are scrumptious -- look, honey," says Rachel Lefer to her husband, Greg, of Clarksville. "Let's get one for my mom and Tina and -- who else? One for us?"

"Haven't we bought enough already?" Greg Lefer asks, prompting his wife to produce a dog-eared and highlighted list.

"Not yet," she says with a sigh. "Almost there."

Pub Date: 12/24/96

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