RETAILERS FIND LITTLE HOLIDAY CHEER But early sales buoy some area stores


Although there appears to be a decline in Christmas sales for large retailers nationwide, an informal survey of 15 smaller area retailers yesterday did not indicate a completely dismal picture of how Christmas sales are shaping up two weeks into the season.

One retailer said sales were nicely ahead of last year's Christmas levels, some said sales were slightly higher than those of a year ago, and others said there has been a decline but that things are better than they expected for the biggest selling period of the year.

"My sales are 12 percent ahead of last Christmas season so far, and since we were 49 percent higher in sales the year before that, these are tough figures to beat," said Robin Pinkowitz, manager of the popular Benetton sweater shop in Owings Mills.

Although most merchants interviewed were not as upbeat as Ms. Pinkowitz, there were other glimmers of hope that the holiday selling season will not leave many retailers completely cheerless at the end of the year.

"It's not bad; the traffic looks very good," said Clara Dolby, owner of the Wicks N' Sticks in White Marsh. Ms. Dolby said sales aren't spectacular but are ahead of last year's.

But most merchants agreed that continuing poor economic forecasts are making them a bit nervous -- regardless of how Christmas sales are going so far.

"It's not nearly as bad as many of us thought, but we're not resting easy because of what has been predicted," said the manager of a Zales jewelry store.

Retailers said malls have been crowded -- but mainly with lookers -- because consumers seem to be waiting until the last minute for huge markdowns.

"There is more traffic, but a lot of people are looking for a sale," said Tim Easley, manager of Georgetown Leather in Owings Mills. "A lot of people are saying, 'We'll wait -- we'll wait until things are marked down further closer to Christmas.' "

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