Thousands of Baltimore-area shoppers hit the megamallsand superstores in search of holiday gifts this pastweekend, but Ruth Levy wasn't one of them.
Instead, the city resident shopped for toys for hergrandchildren at Barstons Child's Play, a small storein the Village of Cross Keys.
"It's overwhelmingly exhausting just thinking aboutit," Levy said at the notion of visiting a superstorethis season. "I like everything about smaller stores -- and, here, they know their stock, it's always been a pleasant shopping experience."
Neither were Herb and Sandy Kasoff. They shunned thebig-box stores to make their purchases at Barstonswith their grandchildren.
"We like to go to the smaller shops," Herb Kasoffsaid. "They have more educational toys."
Mrs. Kasoff added, "It's not such a mob scene."
Frustrated with the huge crowds, impersonal serviceand traffic delays, Levy and the Kasoffs were among afast-growing number of residents in the Baltimoreregion who spent the Thanksgiving Day weekend -- longconsidered the official start of the holiday retailingseason -- shopping at small, privately owned stores.
Evidence is anecdotal, but local shopkeepers andretailing experts say many more people are passingover the huge discount stores, particularly on theFriday after Thanksgiving, to spend their limitedshopping time -- and dollars -- searching out uniquegifts and obtaining personal service at these smalloutlets.
"People still like to be waited on at stores withstaff who are authoritative and know what they'redoing," said George Whalin, president and chiefexecutive of Retail Management Consultants in SanMarcos, Calif. "People still like to go to stores thatare fun. People still like to go to stores that offera unique shopping experience."
The Washington-based National Retail Federation ispredicting the best holiday shopping season since1997, with sales up 5.7 percent over last year, to$217.4 billion, despite some consumer concerns aboutsluggish economic growth and jobs. That compares witha 2.2 percent increase in 2002.
Retailers also will benefit from one extra shoppingday this year, for a total of 27 days.
In addition, online holiday sales are expected toincrease this year, too. Forrester Research, thetechnology firm based in Cambridge, Mass., estimatesthat online purchases will increase 42 percent overlast year, to $12.2 billion. The results includetravel and auction sites.
Whalin predicts smaller retailers will have a goodseason, too. "And it's going to be very good for thosewho offer something different."
Recent economic realities have "really shaken out themarginal stores," he said. "There are some pretty goodretailers left now."
As a result, the drive for the steadily shrinkingconsumer dollar is even more cut-throat. "It's tootough out there," Whalin said. "The business is justtoo tough now.
"Small retailers have to be better," he added."They've got to be very different, and it's going tobe that way forever."
It's this difference that brought Barbara Blair ofTowson out Saturday to The Pleasure of Your Company, agift shop at Greenspring Station in Baltimore County.
"The customer service provided is more personable,"Blair said. "If you don't find what you need, theyrecommend another place."
Still, it was busy inside the store. Owner Hannah KeysRodewald and her employees could not slow down enoughfor a lunch break because of the heavy customertraffic.
"Knock on wood, we've been having our holiday businessgo up every year," Rodewald said. "We're in asituation where our customers aren't driven by deepdiscounts. They want high-quality items and goodservice."
Rodewald also co-owns Hannah Elizabeth, another giftshop only a few steps from The Pleasure of YourCompany. That store was opened just nine days beforethe 9/11 terrorist attacks, which crippled sales thatyear.
Now, purchases are up 20 percent to 30 percent at bothstores, Rodewald said.
"We don't have big ups and downs like malls do," shesaid. "We have a very steady business all throughoutthe year."
Back at Cross Keys, Renee Wilson said sales picked upat her store, Heirloom Jewelers Inc., a few weeks ago.
"We're not like a store in the mall where the holidayshoppers come all at once." Wilson said. "Our businessisn't as concerned with the day after Thanksgiving. Wehad a nice day, but it doesn't make or break us. It'sa combination of the entire season."
Wilson said Heirloom Jewelers provides "white-glovetreatment" to customers. And a growing number of her clientele are men.
"A lot of men step up to the plate to buy things forwomen here," Wilson said. "We spend a lot of time withthem figuring out what their wives would like. We evenknow some of their wives personally because we're asmall business.
"Women realize what hard work it is for men to pickout gifts, so we have very few returns," she added.
A few shops over at Barstons, co-owner BarbaraFineblum talked of "phenomenal" sales brought on bythe toy store's kid-friendly environment and eclecticselection of products.
"We know what we're selling , and we have great stuffthat no other stores have," Fineblum said. "There'salso great customer service here. You go to Toys 'R'Us and there is really no one to help you.
"People want to get everything and not go anywhereelse."
One such customer was Laura Burden, who was shoppingwith her sons -- Sebastian, 3, and Griffen, 14 months.
"Smaller stores are less intense for kids," theBaltimore resident said. "The quality of the toys isbetter, too. They are more educational and not so big-- and it's a more homelike environment."
Meanwhile, at Hannah Elizabeth in Greenspring Station,Victoria Posey expressed satisfaction with thetraffic at the store she managed.
"This weekend has been great, even though the weatherwas abysmal," she said. "We couldn't be more pleased."
And shopping among the wreaths and candles there wasLisa Wilson. She had no problem with traveling fromCatonsville.
"I try to make the holidays a pleasant, peacefulexperience -- and the mall is a war zone," she said."I realize that things are expensive everywhere, butsmaller stores have great personal service and qualitymerchandise."