Pacific exchanges weather early Black Friday crowds

Robert Rice, an exchange manager, hands shoppers tickets to reserve Hewlett Packard laptops at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. Only about 230 of the laptops were available at Okinawa exchanges, and they were hot commodities for shoppers Friday, Air Force Col. Steve Kimball, Pacific Army Air Force Exchange Services commander, said.


Hundreds line up to take advantage of holiday specials

By BRYCE S. DUBEE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 30, 2008

Chilly weather and lack of sleep didn’t deter shoppers across Pacific bases from standing for hours outside exchanges to get an early jump on Black Friday.

In South Korea, a severely weakened won also has drawn many U.S. customers to off-base shops.

Jennifer Fitzgerald and a friend began waiting at 10 p.m. Thursday outside Okinawa’s Kadena Air Base exchange, where the first 100 in line would receive gift cards when the store opened. Despite a chill in the air, others filed in behind them. By 6 a.m. several hundred were waiting for the doors to open.

"It was cold for Okinawa," Fitzgerald said. "We were freezing."

At Yokota Air Base in mainland Japan, Mark Neeley, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service main store manager, said a long line greeted him when he arrived to open up.

"I asked the first customer in line what time they got here, and they said 3 a.m.," he said.

A line of hundreds was stretched outside the Camp Foster, Okinawa, exchange by opening time at 7 a.m. as well.

Rob Fuller, cub master for Cub Scout Pack 101, had his pack at the Foster exchange by 6 a.m. to offer free baked goods, coffee and hot cocoa to shoppers and ask for donations. He said he talked with a couple of women who had been waiting at the exchange since 8 p.m. Thursday.

"That’s nuts," he said.

No fan of crowds, Petty Officer 1st Class Karen Cypriensmith said she participates in Black Friday only if she feels she absolutely must.

"It annoys me," she said as she wheeled a shopping cart full of merchandise out of the Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, exchange. "A designer purse and a Wii were my biggest forces of encouragement to come out here in this madness this morning."

Shopping for gifts for his unit’s Christmas party, Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Jackson said the he and some friends left Yokosuka at 5 a.m. to make it to the Yokota exchange before it opened at 7 a.m.

"We wanted to try a new thing this year by shopping at AAFES," he said.

Shopping at Yokota allowed them to dodge the crowds at Yokosuka, where the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and other ships are in port.

Pfc. Latrina Spann, stationed at Camp Stanley in South Korea, spent about $600 on clothes at U.S. Army Garrison-Yongsan.

But she bought 120,000 won (about $80) worth of jewelry at a sidewalk stand in Itaewon, partly because she’ll be leaving South Korea soon, and partly because the won stretches a lot farther than it used to. On Friday, $1 was worth about 1,470 won. A dollar would buy about 1,000 won earlier this year.

"It is a big difference, a big difference," Spann said.

"They used to use dollars," jewelry seller Pak An-chong said of American shoppers. "Now they just use Korean money."

Debora Rinehart said she had bought South Korean goods, including a letterman jacket and sporting gear, to give as Christmas presents this year, because they were cheaper than normal when bought with won.

Buying presents off post also was easier than trying to shop in the post exchange on Friday.

"People were lined up at a 2:30 this morning to get in at seven," she said.

Many customers were looking at laptops and televisions, and waits in the checkout lines were still 25 minutes at about 9:30 a.m.

"The lines were ridiculous," said Pfc. Phillip Wright, who bought a discounted 32-inch LCD television and other electronics at the Yongsan Garrison exchange.

For retailers, large crowds meant large profits, as the recent economic downturn seems to have had less of an effect on the buying power of overseas military shoppers.

As of 9:30 a.m., the Yokosuka store had pulled in $400,000, a number Navy Exchange Japan district merchandise manager Rusti Rausch said was right on track with the store’s goals.

"We’re hoping to exceed last year," she said. "That number is exactly where we’d like to be, so we’re pretty happy with that."

At 10 a.m., the NEX at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, was already well over $100,000, with the base’s Home Store raking in more than $25,000 in sales, base officials said.

However, even as video game console and laptop computers flew off of store shelves, some said the current state of the economy has made their shopping lists a little shorter.

"We’ve already told our children that we’re not spending as much" on Christmas gifts this year, said Joanie Collins, a Department of Defense Dependents School teacher shopping at the Kadena exchange. She said she cancelled an off-base shopping trip on Kokusai Street base because of the low yen-to-dollar exchange rate.

"We’re definitely shopping on base this year," Collins said.

Stars and Stripes reporters Cindy Fisher, Tim Wightman and Ashley Rowland contributed to this report.

Shoppers at the Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, exchange browse DVDs and CDs on sale while waiting in a line that wrapped around the entire electronics area on Friday.