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Let The Exchange Begin! Shoppers Hit Downtown

By Teresa Rochester

On the day after Christmas Liz Cudias and Nancy Gonzalez made their way through the crowds on the bottom floor of Santa Monica Place. They were teenagers on a mission: Exchange the lamp Gonzalez had given Cudias for Christmas.

Cudias knew exactly what she wanted. "A 'Nightmare Before Christmas' lunchbox," she said. "It's my favorite movie."

Gonzalez shrugged. She was fine with her friend joining the hundreds of other gift recipients who descended on downtown Santa Monica Tuesday to exchange gifts they didn't like, that didn't fit, that were the wrong color or, for a dozen other reasons, just weren't right.

Upstairs in Robinsons-May, Sequoia Mercier and her niece Alana examined dark green and light green sleeveless mock turtlenecks. Like millions of Americans across the country, the pair was hitting their local mall in search of bargains on the busiest shopping day of the year.

"We're not exchanging anything," said Sequoia. "We're here for the sale."

Despite reports across the nation that retail sales during the holiday season slumped below expectations, merchants in downtown Santa Monica said they were jumping with business. Christmas falling on a Monday proved fortuitous, downtown officials said, giving shoppers an extra weekend to cram in a last-minute buying spree.

"Thursday through Sunday were phenomenal," said Kathleen Rawson, executive director of the Bayside District Corporation, which oversees the downtown area, including the popular Third Street Promenade.

"This year is parallel to last year's sales," Rawson said, after surveying a handful of area merchants. "Because last year was a banner year we're doing pretty good. The pedestrian counts on the Promenade were high. The [street] performers did well. The movie theaters were packed even on Christmas day."

A spokeswoman for Santa Monica Place, home to 140 shops and eateries, said that sales at the mall mirrored those across the country, with merchants falling short of hitting their growth targets, but still doing as well as last year.

"We were a little bit down," said Emily Ortiz, the mall's assistant director of marketing. "I got some feedback [from merchants] that it was the same as last year. If it was the same as last year, I'm not feeling bad."

Ortiz said Santa Monica Place merchants would have a firmer idea of how well they did this holiday season when final sales numbers are tabulated in mid January.

If final sales dip in Santa Monica, they showed no signs of slowing down Tuesday, as cars jammed downtown garages and crowds packed the Promenade's sidewalks. Saturday-night-sized audiences toting shopping bags engulfed street performers all afternoon along the bustling strip.

Around Santa Monica Place and the Promenade, police in neon-orange vests directed traffic. The officers began monitoring the intersections on Christmas Eve and will be stationed on downtown streets as they are needed until New Year's Day.

"During the holiday season we hire overtime people to do the best we can to make traffic as smooth as possible," said SMPD spokesman Lt. P.J. Guido.

At the Puzzle Zoo on the Promenade shoppers wandered down the toy store's narrow aisles. Employee Sean Demiricift said sales got a big push the weekend before Christmas. The store's top sellers included a "Simpson's" version of the board game "Clue," "Gundam" models based on the popular cartoon and the board game "Cranium."

Several doors down at the Swatch store an employee agreed that the weekend provided an extra boost to sales. "We ended up very strong," she said. "We're very happy."

At Lone Wolf, a cigar shop on Broadway, David Weiss was happy with the holiday sales. "It was fantastic," he said. "It couldn't have been any better."

Despite brisk sales in downtown Santa Monica, the rest of the country's merchants doubted that sales between now and New Year's Day would offset the retail holiday slump, according to the Associated Press.

The wire service reported that Federated Department Stores, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and jeweler Zale Corp. were anticipating that December revenues would fall below expectations.

Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of the nation's economic activity, and holiday sales typically represent 25 percent of retailers' annual sales, according to the Associated Press.

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