The busiest shopping center in the Midwest on Saturday morning wasn't a shopping center at all.
The exhibit hall at the CenturyLink Center Omaha bristled with thousands of Berkshire Hathaway investors beginning at 7 a.m., when organizers opened the convention center for the annual shareholders meeting.
Inside, hundreds of associates representing more than 40 Berkshire companies awaited the throng of stockholders, including Patty Jansen of Omaha, who made one of her first stops at the H.J. Heinz Co. station, which was loaded with 20,000 limited-edition bottles of ketchup.
Jansen picked up two each of the bottles featuring caricatures of Berkshire CEO and Chairman Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman Charlie Munger.
“I'm keeping one pair and giving the other to friends that couldn't be here,” Jansen said.
A bottle with Buffett's likeness was going for $2, and Munger's was selling for $1.50.
“I'm really offended that Warren is getting more than Charlie,” Jansen joked.
As Buffett made his traditional early-morning round through the exhibit hall, the Heinz booth was one of his first stops. In a gentlemanly gesture, he decreed Munger's bottle should sell for $1, since Buffett's at the time was selling faster. Ever the shrewd businessman, Buffett quipped a caveat: “If for any reason he starts coming on, notify me!”
From $1 Dilly Bars to thousand-dollar mattresses, the variety and array of products for sale was staggering. BNSF Railway Co. drew a younger crowd with a pair of locomotive simulators, and the aroma of leather boots and other goods enticed shoppers to the Justin Brands and H.H. Brown stations.
Fruit of the Loom commanded long lines, offering $6 commemorative T-shirts as well as essentials like socks. So did Borsheims, which offered more timeless products, such as an 18-carat white gold necklace with a half-carat diamond pendant with a distinctive cut.
Limited to just 25 necklaces at a sale price of $1,872.50, the diamond also featured an etching of Buffett's signature.
Tom Sanders, an engineer with Omaha-based HDR, bought the last two just after 9 a.m.
“Buying the last ones wasn't my intent,” Sanders said, but his wife asked him to try to get one or two to donate to a silent auction for Lincoln-based nonprofit Creating Captains, a youth leadership education foundation led by former Husker football player Matt Davison.
But some shareholders were more cautious when it came to forking over big bucks.
Bill Elsden and his wife, Betty, made the pilgrimage from Webster City, Iowa, to Omaha for the 10th time. They were in the middle of a sales pitch at the Nebraska Furniture Mart booth for another signature Buffett item — a pillow-top mattress manufactured by Omaha Bedding Co. called “the Warren.”
Bill Elsden said he and his wife now spend their winters in Florida, and he wasn't sure the mattress was firm enough. But a king-size version of the Warren usually retails for more than $2,600, he was told, and the price at the Furniture Mart through Monday is just under $1,000.
The retired farmer didn't bite.
“Our guests keep complaining about where they sleep when they stay with us,” Elsden said. “But I just say they're lucky they have a place to sleep.”
Across the room, a steady stream of shoppers left Fruit of the Loom with bags full of T-shirts, socks and limited-edition “Berky Boxer” shorts featuring caricatures of Buffett and Munger. The $6 shorts were so popular last year that Fruit of the Loom doubled its inventory for this year's event.
Gerald Nurrenbern, a semi-retired construction worker from Evansville, Indiana, hadn't yet made his way to Fruit of the Loom by 8:15 a.m., when he was on his way out of the exhibit hall to the parking lot.
Nurrenbern was beginning a stockpile in his car of wares from Borsheims, Oriental Trading, the Furniture Mart and Pampered Chef. He planned to return to Evansville with gifts for his daughter and grandkids, but not before loading up with at least another armload of deeply discounted products.
“This is the first (trip) of many,” he said.
For many, however, the weekend was about much more than scoring great deals.
Floris Muijser, a partner in an Amsterdam-based private equity firm, made his first-ever trip to Omaha with two colleagues. He was particularly interested in the Clayton Homes exhibit and picked up some souvenirs from Heinz and Fruit of the Loom.
“It's a bucket-list thing we're doing here,” Muijser said. “It's really impressive.”