SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter It may feel like summer, but it’s starting to look a lot like Christmas in the malls across the San Fernando Valley. Since August, stores have been moving in and building out of their mall spaces as they get ready for the holiday ’98 selling season, with the bulk of the newcomers scheduled to open over the next two months. Because many of the Valley malls are nearly fully occupied, the new stores will not significantly change the profiles of the centers. Still, the newcomers will give shoppers the chance to buy everything from a $2,000 train set at The Great Train Store Co., to watches from Swatch that double as telephones. The question, of course, is what will shoppers buy and in what amounts. While consumer confidence remains high and unemployment low, several imponderables could upset the season, including a volatile stock market, possible presidential impeachment hearings and world economic troubles. “You’re starting to see cracks in the facade, more signs of a slowdown in the economy,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles. “I think it’s going to be an okay Christmas, but I don’t think it’s going to be a barn burner.” Kyser and others say that Wall Street will be the one factor that determines the outcome of the holiday season. If the market stabilizes, consumers may well spend freely. But if the uncertainty of past weeks continues into November and December, shoppers are likely to become extremely, whether or not their own personal fortunes change. In general, the shop-till-you-drop mindset of the ’80s is definitely a thing of the past, say retailers and analysts. Consumers are demanding value for their money, even if they have a lot of it. Shoppers define value in two ways, either by virtue of the price or the quality of the product, said Richard Giss, a partner in the trade retail services group of Deloitte & Touche LLP. If a product doesn’t have a low price, then it has to have attributes that warrant the higher cost. At The Great Train Store, for example, items range from $1 for a novelty pen decorated with a miniature train to a $2,000 collector’s train set. Stocking a wide range of prices may be especially smart this holiday season. “If people pull back on what they buy, they’re still going to fall back on their flight to value,” Giss said. Retailers are nonetheless betting that consumers will ante up for merchandise that appeals to their sense of quality, fun and fashion. “People are looking for entertainment and to have a good time,” said Michael Glazer, vice president for real estate at The Great Train Store, which is opening its first Southern California store at the Glendale Galleria in early November. Unlike TV and the Internet, collecting and setting up train sets is something families can do together. “It’s something different to do, and parents can relate to it because they had trains,” Glazer added. Many of the new offerings for the upcoming season focus on home and hearth. Pottery Barn stores in Topanga Plaza and Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks will expand their square footage more than three-fold and add new lighting galleries, bath shops and bed linen assortments to the tableware, kitchen, housewares and decorative accessories mix. There will also be a “design studio” where customers can map out a floor plan of their rooms and then coordinate furnishings for the layout. “People are making a lot of money. They’re buying first homes and second homes, and as we’re able to expand, we’re doing so,” said Jennifer Drubner, a spokeswoman for the company. There will also be new apparel offerings. Betsey Johnson, a trendy women’s apparel shop, will open a new 1,400-square-foot store in the Sherman Oaks Fashion Square. Though the company has always preferred street locations, executives felt the Sherman Oaks location was a good one to attract the estimated 30 percent to 50 percent of its customers who are East Valley residents. Stacia Heath, director of West Coast retail, said the company has recently added a new line called Betsey Johnson’s Social Dresses, with party dresses selling at $250 to $500. “We anticipate those will be very big for holiday,” she said. Swatch, too, thinks that fashion, along with a distinctive brand image, can be a big draw for consumers in the current market. The backlash that followed the designer-label mania of the ’80s, is over, said Whitney Doherty, special events and public relations coordinator at Swatch’s U.S. headquarters in Weehawken, N.J. “What I see is a complete turnaround where people are much more into labels than ever before,” Doherty said. “It used to stand for quality and luxury and a sense of achievement. Now it stands for an identity. People are looking to belong to a group.” Like a number of manufacturers lately, Swatch is setting up its own stores. The first in Southern California will be a 460-square-foot store in the Glendale Galleria this month. The company is also opening in Santa Monica as well. The company’s hope is that by controlling the way its merchandise is presented and sold, Swatch can better establish its brand identity across a wider market. The Glendale Galleria is also getting a new California Orchards store, which will open its sixth store in the Galleria this fall. The store sells dried fruits and nuts, exotic olive oils and vinegars, pesto and other sauces and condiments along with a selection of 48 hot sauces. Ali Hashemian, the company president, said he’s not worried about his pricey, gourmet items because today’s shopper is looking for quality, and his products meet their criterion. Besides, he believes California Orchards would be relatively insulated from the effects of a downturn in the economy. “In a bad economy, where people are not able to indulge themselves in eating out, they turn to food (they can treat themselves to at home)”, Hashemian said. For those looking to buy a little peace of mind, Health & Wholeness may be just the ticket. The company is opening a 1,319-square-foot store its first in Southern California in the Topanga Plaza Mall in Woodland Hills. The retailer, with roots in the transcendental meditation movement founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and championed by the Beatles in the ’60s, sells herbal supplements with names like “Worryfree” and “Blissful Joy.” Health & Wholeness made the move into Southern California because its catalog sales division identified the area as having one of the largest concentrations of customers for its supplements, aromatherapy oils and prepared foods, such as Raja’s Cup, a coffee substitute that doubles as an anti-oxidant that is thought to be helpful in warding off diseases. But whether they target those seeking inner peace or those still clinging to the outer trappings of wealth, these newcomers all share one thing in common: They are niche players hoping to capture a bigger slice of middle America’s discretionary income. “We’re going mainstream, big time,” said Kelly Lunsford, retail operations coordinator for Health & Wholeness, the retailing division of Maharishi Ayurved Products International, which plans to open three more stores in the Southern California market by next spring.