"Woo-hoo, 20 percent!" said Sales Associate Joyce, holding high and ringing a small bell.
It was the first day of the well-publicized Secret Sale - a right smart marketing move, with slick mail invitations offering discounts of from 15 to 100 percent for merchandise purchased with a Gottschalks card between July 25 and 29. The invitation revealed the odds of receiving each level of discount. The 100 percent discount was probably as likely as winning the lottery, but the promise of at least 15 percent was always kept.
The Secret Sale opening day was also a discount day for what Gottschalks calls Plus Shoppers, formerly know as Plus 55, in reference to the minimum aged required. "It sounds so much better," said Sales Associate Susan. Gottschalks gives a 10 percent discount to their Plus shoppers every Tuesday, a rarity for a department store.
"I call it double dipping," said Joyce about the phenomenon of pairing senior discount day with the Secret Sale. This pairing, like a Bordeaux Blend and a New York steak, allowed Plus Shoppers to receive at least a 25 percent discount. And the fine print didn't taketh much away. Almost all merchandise was included, even sale items.
Their slang might not be hip and they might not move fast, but nobody is cooler than seniors seeking hot bargains. They can slice through the hype, cut to the chase and whip out the plastic when they see a real deal. They stood in line with their Gottschalks bags. One man had a luggage set on wheels.
The lines ran back through the purses to the Estee Lauder and Clinique products of the Fragrance Department where Sales Associate Ellen worked - nearly to Men's Furnishings where Sales Associate Nohemy does the merchandising. Corporate stores never have clerks or workers and none of them have last names.
"One of our registers is down," Sales Associate Virginia told those waiting in line to be blessed with the discount. "We appreciate your patience." She was to repeat this several times. And the shoppers were mostly patient. Cookies and fruit juice on a side table helped.
Sweet Joni Mitchell came over the box: "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." The ornate dome was ringed with renderings of entwined grape vines - the magic purple fruit and green leaves a promise against the translucent light from above.
The secret to how much of a discount each shopper would get lay under a round silvery grey scratch spot on each shopper's invitation.
After Joyce or Virginia called each "next person" - asked if they would shop any more this week, explaining that each card could have only one discount during the sale - then stamped the receipts "super sale" - they would scrape the Gottschalks spot with the edge of a credit card and announce the discount.
"Fifteen percent," Joyce would say, with no indication that the shopper had lost, but she would whoop it up and ring the bell when it was more than 15 percent.
A woman from Antioch said she could always find something to buy for granddaughters. For a scary second it looked liked she was going to pull out photos.
Two young women cadets from the navel (yes, navel) academy hung briefly at the earring counter looking for and failing to find the just right cute pair. One looked at the line and asked the other what was going on and got back, "I have no idea."
For those who didn't have an invitation or had left it in the hot box of their glove compartment, a basket on the counter held more invitations. A woman whose turn it was, stood in front of the basket. "I wonder if it's best to pick from the basket or use the invitation they mailed to me." Someone kindly explained to her that there was no way to tell until Joyce or Virginia scraped the spot.
Joyce and Virginia kept at it. Next person - only one discount per credit card, it'll show up on your statement - stamp receipt - scrape the spot - announce discount, 15 percent or woo-hoo, ring the bell - tear invitation at perforation, one half in the cardboard box the other back to the customer, "This has your address on it, you don't want that floating around out there."
Somebody in line said, "Maybe they're going to open another register," when a woman who might have been a sales associate supervisor arrived. She tapped some keys on the dead register and picked up a phone.
"We called corporate," Virginia said. "The phones just keep ringing." Sales Associate Sabrina relieved Joyce and told a customer who didn't have a card, "If you go over to that register (pointing to where Joyce now was stationed), the associate will do a look up."
It took shoppers 30 minutes to work to the front of the line, get the bell rung or not, then move on. But the line itself kept running back to the Fragrance Department. Joyce said none of the discounts exceeded 20 percent.