Last Monday night at Lionel Play-world:
A customer spotted a toy he wanted on the top shelf of the toddler aisle. He spied a ladder near the basketballs, grabbed it and climbed up 15 feet to the top of the stack of musical toys.His wife, standing at the foot of the ladder, shouted up, "How much is it?" "It doesn't matter," he called out, gleefully. "I'm buying it!"
For many shoppers, price is a secondary concern. They must have a specific Sesame Street music box or Nintendo game or Barbie doll. They see; they buy.
Other Utahns shop differently. They look for bargains. For them the holiday season means comparison shopping. Especially this year.
A price war has been reported across the nation, which raises questions for cost-conscious Utahns. With only 10 shopping days until Christmas, local bargain hunters are asking themselves, "Is this price war coming to Utah?" "Should I wait?" "Will I see a lot more sales next week?"
Nationally, the price war started this fall when the struggling Child World chain said it couldn't pay third-quarter bills until Jan. 15.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Child World would cut prices in an attempt to increase sales during the last weeks of the year. The Toys "R" Us chain responded with similar price cuts.
Just last week, in answer to a national buying slump and price cuts by competitors, Sears Roebuck & Co. announced it would hold its traditional after-Christmas sale before Christmas.
What does this mean for Utah toy buyers? Local Sears stores stopped stocking playthings several months ago and now sell toys only through catalogs. And Child World doesn't have any stores in the state.
But Toys "R" Us is here. As the nation's largest toy seller opened three stores in Utah in October, other local stores - toy chains like Lionel Playworld and discount stores like BEST, ShopKo, K mart and Fred Meyer - geared up for their major new competitor for Christmas sales. Now that competitor is involved in a tough national sales strategy. Now there is a widespread retail slump.
"This is my fifth Christmas at the store, and it's the worst I've seen," said Peggy Leland, supervisor at Lionel Playworld in Murray. Asked if sales are slow because of the new Toys "R" Us store in the area or because Utahns are cutting back, Leland didn't know.
She doesn't necessarily buy the "price war" idea. She said, "The sales at Lionel this week and next week were already planned. That stuff is set in July."
No retail slump at Toys "R" Us, says Murray store manager Bob Eatin. "Sales in Utah have been totally opposite the national trend," he said.
His store has mark-down merchandise, and it's the same merchandise that's on sale in other states. Most of the clearance items are things that have been in stock for a while.
Eatin says that his store has the computer system it would take to conduct a price war, to respond instantly if a competitor lowered prices and Toys "R" Us wanted to match them. But that's not the way the chain typically does business.
Mike McNaney, area director for Toys"R" Us in Denver said, "This national toy clearance has been in the works since October."
Call it a price war or call it competition, from where he sits, Gregories toy store owner Greg Gohlinghorst sees some hardball tactics going on.
Because they carry more expensive European and educational toys, Gregories toy stores aren't in direct competition with the large chains. "It doesn't affect me," said Gohling-horst. "But there's no question in my mind that those other stores are getting beat to death since Toys "R" Us opened."
He cites page after page of newspaper coupons and merchants' low price guarantees, saying, "I think the price war is on."
In Murray, the ShopKo store is right across the street from Toys "R" Us. Inside ShopKo, Legos are marked down 25 percent. Barbie dolls, too, are marked down significantly. ShopKo customers have all but stripped several shelves.
ShopKo managers referred all questions to the national headquarters where spokeswoman Jane Kresin said, "Overall sales have been excellent. We are a bit different from other chains in that we don't release sales figures."
To shoppers who are holding off, hoping that prices will be even lower next week, McNaney said, "I don't know what's going to happen." If you have a specific item in mind and you wait too long, it might be out of stock. "That's the risky part of Christmas shopping."