Christmas hangover: Baltimore-area families flock to mall for sales, returns, gift cards

With six stuffed shopping bags between them, the Toppins family took stock of their morning haul while sitting at a quiet table in the middle of The Mall in Columbia.

It was still early on the day after Christmas, but 14-year-old Nevaeh Toppins, along with her mother and grandmother, had a whole new crop of clothes and treats to show off to one another.

Dec. 26 is typically one of the biggest shopping days of the year at the sprawling mall in Howard County. Some consumers, like Nevaeh, are there to spend the gift cards they unwrapped the day before. Others come to make returns while they still have the day off from school or work. And many are scouting the post-holiday sales.

With the Christmas tree and other holiday decorations still making the mall feel festive — though the resident Santa has, of course, gone back to the North Pole — a steady stream of shoppers worked their way through the stores.

“Retailers have been reporting a very good holiday season,” said the mall’s senior general manager Barbara Nicklas. “Consumer confidence is high and we’ve had a very strong 2018, which has remained strong through the holiday season in terms of traffic and sales.”

Despite continual growth in online shopping, Dec. 26 remains a day for the savviest shoppers to return to brick-and-mortar retail meccas.

Gift cards were the top item on people’s wish lists, according to the Maryland Retailers Association, and many shoppers came to the Columbia mall to cash in on them right away.

About 68 percent of people plan on shopping the week after Christmas, according to the National Retail Federation, and 58 percent of holiday shoppers plan on returning or exchanging unwanted gifts this year, usually within the first month.

Nevaeh, her mother and her grandmother pulled up to the mall half an hour before it even opened Wednesday. Once the store gates flew up, the family divided and conquered. Navaeh headed to Forever 21 with her mom, while her grandmother, Sue Babers, aimed for Lord & Taylor.

Babers found major holiday steals — a soft sweater that was originally $195, she bagged for $54. As she showed off the deals, 32-year-old Kenyetta Toppins turned to her daughter: “You need to go shopping with your grandma more,” she said.

While many flocked to the mall on the day after Christmas, more and more people are turning to online shopping during the holiday season.

“For the past two years, more consumers have shopped online than in brick and mortar stores,” said Maryland Retailers Association President Cailey Locklair Tolle. “With many online retailers being forced to collect sales tax and brick-and-mortar stores focused on creating experiences for their shoppers, we are hopeful these numbers will start to level off.”

Online retail giant Amazon announced Wednesday that the company had enjoyed a “record-breaking holiday season,” with more items ordered worldwide than ever before.

Nicklas said people still enjoy shopping in-person.

“They love the decor; they love all the amenities; they love the play area, et cetera,” Nicklas said.

The National Retail Federation reported that 55 percent of consumers planned to purchase holiday gifts online this year — the same percentage expected to go to a department store

Major sales are the biggest driver of post-Christmas shopping. Lush, a cosmetics company, was packed all morning. The store offers only one sale a year — on Dec. 26.

Kim von der Lippe, 27, came to the Columbia mall just for the Lush sale. It was buy-one, get-one free on many seasonal items, like holiday-themed bath bombs and soap bars.

The store was also the major draw for mother-daughter pair Cindy and Madison Wray.

Madison, 14, moved through the fragrant store, sniffing the colorful products and then holding them up for her mother to try. She ended up with a “Naughty Elf” bubble bar, which smelled like violet, and a “The North Polar Bear Left The Tap on For The Northern Lights” soap. That mouthful of a product promised to be softening and fragrant.

Lush manager Mandee Stivelman said the one-day sale is always a big driver of business. Even two hours before the store opened, a long line had formed outside the shop. As soon as she lifted the gate, Stivelman said, “they flooded right in.”

“Customers wait all year for it,” she said, estimating that December brings the company four times the business of any other month.

Natalie McNellis, 16, comes to the mall often with her friends. Since school is still out for winter break, she figured Wednesday was a good time to make her returns. Her parents gave her the Pandora ring she asked for on her Christmas list, but it was just a little too big.

As she got dressed for the mall, she found a slew of new options. She made her ring exchange while wearing the North Face vest and L.L.Bean boots she had unwrapped the day before.

Babers was already thinking ahead to next Christmas. She bought four boxes of holiday cards from the stationary store Papyrus — all 50 percent off.

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