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They came not only to hear and see the fourth-richest man in the world. Many at this year's Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting were on a mission.
They were out to score a pair of “unisex, must-have” Berky Boxers, to grab a dab of a Warren Buffett favorite Dilly Bar or maybe even a $22,503 hand-knotted rug from Nebraska Furniture Mart. Yet others focused in on the Justin Brands footwear booth after Buffett squared off in a putting match there with former Huskers standout Ndamukong Suh.
Doors opened about 6:30 a.m., sending a horde of cold and wet shareholders and friends darting toward favorite or discounted items. Many vendors at the expo, which features businesses owned or connected to Berkshire, reported better sales than a year ago.
Some of the shoppers and vendors we talked to:
Loading up on furniture ... and jewelry
Sridhar Subramanian's strategy Saturday was to pick up a good lead on which business sector to invest his next buck on and to get a general pulse on what Berkshire's CEO is thinking.
Oh, yeah, he also wanted a king-size “Warren” mattress.
The California shareholder who sells Internet gear said investing is his “passion,” but he happened to have closed 20 days ago on the purchase of his first house. He said he is inspired by Rose Blumkin, believes he can't go wrong with the quality of Berkshire companies and is taking advantage of the shareholder discount for Nebraska Furniture Mart products.
He planned to buy more Mart furniture, perhaps a dining room set and more. He is not too worried about what his wife might say. “She knows I make sensible decisions.”
Just in case, he's stopping at Borsheims Fine Jewelry.
“I'll first tell her about the jewelry and then, 'By the way ...' ”
A fruitful quest
Chelsea and Therese Julin of Omaha might catch some of the business meeting on a big-screen TV but, for them, it's mainly about the shopping deals.
Arms filled with Fruit of the Loom crew socks, T-shirts and underwear, they said they can get those necessities for half and sometimes a third of the regular cost.
“We've never gone to the meeting, we only do the shopping,” said Chelsea, who plans to get her engagement ring (discounted) this weekend at Borsheims.
Therese, Chelsea's mom, said she bought Berkshire stock about eight years ago for the good investment. But they've grown to love the atmosphere of the expo.
“We did pick out a pontoon boat we like,” Therese said, amused about its $41,000 price tag.
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Celebrities such as football star Ndamukong Suh, former model Kathy Ireland and multibillionaire Bill Gates this year contributed to the spectacle at the shopping expo.
Starting at 7 a.m., Ireland, Gates and Suh accompanied Warren Buffett as he made his rounds with media in tow. They all took part in The World-Herald paper toss.
Buffett assistant Debbie Bosanek told the celebrities that Buffett had been practicing his paper-tossing skills at the office all week. “He's not worried at all. We'll see how he does.”
That was before she saw Suh launch a newspaper fast and far. “Warren is really going to have to work hard!” she exclaimed.
During the toss, Suh, who plays for the Detroit Lions and was appearing to help Justin Brands introduce a new collection of golf shoes, presented Buffett a No. 93 Husker jersey. Buffett was pleased, noting he's got a perfect spot for it in his office.
Big supply; hello, big demand
More than 12,000 pounds of candy — including 6,000 limited-edition boxes and 3,000 coconut bonbons — stocked the See's Candies booth.
Dairy Queen carts that dotted the expo were filled with 15,000 Dilly Bars and 2,000 mini-Oreo Blizzards.
Meanwhile, Oriental Trading Co. kept replenishing bushels and bushels of rubber duckies made in the image of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, as well as other novelty items.
All of the vendors at Saturday's Berkshire Hathaway expo brought plenty of inventory, but some booths sold out of popular items before noon.
Justin Brands brought about 3,700 pairs of boots and shoes to the exhibit hall, said Vice President of Sales Administration Chuck Schmalbach. All of the shoes were marked down from their retail prices, including a pair of Caiman alligator skin golf shoes, which retailed at about $800 but were available to shareholders for $565. Schmalbach said he expected to sell 35 to 40 pairs of the golf cleats Saturday.
Courtney Cohen of See's said traffic seemed double that of 2012, and its discounted shareholder treat bags were gone in the day's first few hours. Half the bonbons had vanished by noon as well — with sales buoyed by a Warren Buffett stop in which he dipped a few himself.
The Geico auto insurance booth was nearly out of its 250 “build-a-bear” gecko animals before noon. “They're our hot item,” said representative Chris LeMaster.
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From shopping to shipping
While shopping at Berkshire, the big question is: How to get the purchases home? For the past nine years, the TLK Air Care booth has shipped about 400 packages annually for shareholder shoppers. About 15 percent of those are shipped internationally, said TLK President Terry McMullen.
As of Saturday morning, the booth already had shipped purchases to South Africa, China, Taiwan and Canada. The largest was a 100-pound shipment containing 17 copies of Charlie Munger's “Poor Charlie's Almanack,” which cost about $300 to ship to Canada.
“He was happy with that rate,” McMullen added.
Show and tell
Omahan Lynne Vittitoe and Delesa Michalski of Columbia, Mo., became fast friends on Saturday while resting on a bench on the company display floor and showing off their purchases.
Vittitoe, a 10-year veteran at the annual meeting, snagged a commemorative “year in review” book. She said she enjoys buying keepsake books so that she can “look at the shelf and say 'Look! I've been to the meeting 10 times!' ”
Michalski, who's been to the meeting three times, bought See's Candies and the Buffett/Munger boxers.
The two, who were strangers before Saturday, agreed the meeting is a fun time to not only find good deals but bump into new people. “You never know what you're going to find,” Vittitoe said.
Going ape for the grape
A batch of purple grapes, green grapes, a leaf and apple were busy nonstop taking photos with shareholders. A Warren Buffett image was superimposed into each shot. And by noon, nearly 800 people had posed with the Fruit of the Loom mascots, nearly exceeding the number taken all day in 2012.
The fruits talked between breaks about the rigor of posing.
Leaf: “Grapes are the most popular. They get squeezed a lot.”
Apple: “I'm too hard core for that.”
The Omaha World-Herald Co. is owned by Berkshire Hathaway Inc.