When snowflakes began falling Monday afternoon, the commotion near Mondawmin Mall slowed. Children pointed to the sky. Shoppers, their shoulders previously hunched against the cold, stood to take in the scene.
Inside, shoppers buzzed through stores buying last-minute gifts, extra wrapping paper or the final ingredients for holiday meals and desserts. At The Esquire barber shop, men and boys waited for a chair and a fresh cut while talking of Christmas Eve church trips and parties ahead.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, stepping from the Target store she frequents, discussed plans for an all-day Christmas feast. Cabbies waiting outside hoped to find passengers who had walked to the mall but suddenly found themselves over-burdened with presents. A few fares would allow them to swing back around and get an extra gift or two.
There was hardly any hustle-bustle or horn-honking in these final hours before the brief holiday calm.
"These can be stressful hours for people, but surprisingly, everyone here seems to be completely in the holiday spirit," Rawlings-Blake said.
Shoppers tore through stores over the weekend, retailers said, and were mostly finishing final errands Monday.
Target had restocked for the last push, said Kevin Lewis, a supervisor who has worked at the store for nine years.
"We've learned over the years that we're a last-minute kind of store," he said. "People find out they need a lot of different things as the big day approaches."
Olu Kamara, an aspiring actress and model who lives in the Barclay neighborhood of North Baltimore, walked out of the store with an overflowing cart that Lewis said was typical: half full of gifts for others, half full of long-needed household items that happened to be on sale. Kamara's selection included both a play kitchen for her niece and new set of pots and pans for herself. She plans to cook Christmas dinner.
"I came in saying I was going to spend $300 and spent much more," she said. "But you know what? I'll just say, 'Merry Christmas.' I wasn't going to let my godkids and niece go without gifts."
Many shoppers hovered around video game systems and electronic tablets, even those designed for young children.
Financial analysts have lowered their fourth-quarter revenue projections for toy companies like Hasbro and Mattel, according to the Financial Times, because of the continuing shift toward electronic gifts.
The National Retail Foundation predicted a 4.1 percent increase in all holiday sales over 2011, representing less growth than the last two years (5.6 percent and 5.5 percent). A lack of a must-have item — besides the iPad mini — and worry surrounding the fiscal cliff left consumers taking a more conservative approach, analysts told Investor's Business Daily.
David Pollard had taken the short trip to the mall to get his 3-year-old son a Nintendo Wii video game system and a Nerf gun, but stopped the mayor to lament the lack of bookmobiles making the rounds in Baltimore.
"I worry about how much time these kids are spending in front of computers and televisions," he said. "You set a kid free with all those books around, give them a choice. That's what we need to do. Bring back some of those old traditions."
Pollard said he waited to shop on Christmas Eve because "you can save just a little bit."
Rawlings-Blake needed wrapping supplies, she said, after picking up a few last gifts at Shananigans toy store in Wyndhurst.
She'll settle in for a long "brunch" on Christmas, featuring a made-to-order omelet bar, a Belgian waffle station and "all the breakfast meats you can name." Family members come together to prepare the meal, she said.
"We'll eat from noon to midnight," she said.
Target employees were braced for the actual last minutes of the Christmas Eve rush, as the store planned to stay open until 9 p.m., an hour later than the rest of the mall. Lewis said people usually stream through to see whether extra sales have kicked in — or because any reserve they'd shown up to that point had been whittled away by the holiday spirit. The store opens at 7 a.m. the day after Christmas and will again be well-staffed to handle returns and purchases made with gift cards.
"That's one of our busiest days of the year because of the cards," he said.
But Monday afternoon at Mondawmin, the lines were short and moved quickly. Lewis called it a "pretty normal" Christmas Eve.