MODESTO -- Santa has come and gone. Time for the holiday end game: bargain hunting. Those red slashes over prices spell rosier decorating next year, more gifts to give later or great deals for the elves themselves.
Foot traffic poured in and out of Vintage Faire Mall in Modesto on Wednesday, and the parking lot was packed.
"It's crazier than Christmas Eve way crazier," said Stephanie Williamson. She came to find a computer, but left empty-handed.
Most local merchants said it was a good year not spectacular, but solid. That beats the national trend, which saw buying drop to 2008 levels. Analysts said the numbers in part reflected East Coast disasters, which likely did not have a strong effect in California.
Mall shopper John Paul Beech said he accomplished his goal Wednesday: returning clothes. He met up with Matt Boone, who was walking in to spend gift cards he'd received.
Leaving with bags in hand, Arlette Magallon said she came with a friend to stock up on half-price candles, but they ended up shopping through the mall and finding other good buys. Despite the throngs of shoppers, most stores had lots of registers ringing and extra staff, so waits to buy were short, she said.
"The lines were long, but they were moving really quickly, so that was nice," Magallon said.
In Turlock, Kohl's customer Lucy Silva of Hilmar bustled to her car with packages. "There are really good bargains," she said.
Also returning to her car laden, Marlene Weeks of Ceres said she was making the most of her Christmas money, finding lots of holiday items she'll be tucking away for next year.
But in the McHenry Village shopping center in Modesto, Karin Groth of Atwater said she brought her family out to browse as much as buy. "We're just out shopping, enjoying the experience. We're starting a new tradition," Groth said as her children checked out at the Farmer's Daughter gift shop.
Shop owner Cheri Merenda and grandson Andrew Merenda checked out a steady line of customers, slowly depleting the stock of home décor and ornaments.
"Definitely, our day after Christmas is always big," Cheri Merenda said. She plans for it, sending announcements, laying out refreshments and taking a large slice off holiday prices.
"It's a party day for us," she said, adding that it's been a good season all around.
Next door at Marcy's Hallmark, aisles packed with red and green were looking sparse. It's almost time for the pinks to pop up for Valentine's Day, clerks said, surveying an empty rack. Manager Natalie Bydak said shoppers lined up for their early opening and the morning was busy, but afternoon was winding down.
Around the corner at Fun Sport Bikes, co-owner Brian Zahra said Christmas gift cards brought lots of customers Wednesday. Overall, foot traffic was down this year, but purchasing held steady, he said.
"More customers were in and out. They knew exactly what they wanted. It was a good season for us, but there was a different feel to it," Zahra said.
Worries over the potential impact of the federal budget showdown the so-called fiscal cliff could well have caused buyers to hold holiday joy in check, Zahra speculated.
In downtown Modesto, specialty stores Wednesday were answering the day-after needs of those who did splurge a little. Craig Campbell said he was looking for a replacement battery for a lifeless new computer.
At the Camera Center, salesman Ronny Torres said most customers that day were looking for accessories for cameras they got. Some were hoping for a quick course in how to use the new technology.
"More had questions about their purchases, more the Q-and-A," Torres said.
Bee reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.