At 9:15 a.m., before the stores officially open, White Marsh Mall is quiet and surreal. Little indicates the retailing bedlam that will unfold throughout one of the year's busiest shopping days.
Only the mall-walkers are out at this hour. James and Gertrude Armstrong, retirees who live in the White Marsh community, ignore the darkened store windows they pass at breakneck speed in their two-mile trek. But they only walk.
"We've learned the hard way," Mrs. Armstrong says. "We never come down here to eat or shop during the weekend."
That's because in a few minutes, when the clock strikes 10, the mall's 190 merchants -- not including five department stores and 26 eating establishments -- will open for a 12-hour frenzy of consumerism.
By the end of this day -- Saturday, Dec. 14 -- some 50,000 people will have made their way through White Marsh Mall's 1.1 million square feet. They will consume more than 500 hamburgers and 1,500 slices of pizza, all to the music of Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and every other crooner in the universe who ever recorded a Christmas carol.
Although some of the five department stores have been open since 8 a.m., few shoppers arrive before 10, the official opening time.
Eighty-one-year-old Joe Heming and his friends have the food court largely to themselves after their morning walk.
Tony Bodzer, co-owner of Bodzer's Collectibles, is a little miffed at the autonomy of the "anchors," as Sears, J.C. Penney, Macy's, Hecht's and Woodward & Lothrop are known. They can choose to stay open after 10 p.m., and that often leaves the little guys with no choice but to stay open, too.
But he's optimistic. "The weather's perfect: rainy," he says, predicting sales of $10,000 to $12,000, "a really good day for us."
This day, coming as it does less than two weeks before Christmas, promises to pack a lot of punch for area retailers, many of whom make well over half their annual "nut" in the last quarter of the year.
Retail sales have been slow so far this season, up a mere 0.4 percent in November. And many are looking with varying degrees of hope for consumers to wake up and pull this nation out of recession -- to drive to the mall and spend like they mean it.
At 10 a.m. the stores open, people start to stream in, and Santa Claus opens for business. The line started forming at 9:30, and by 10:30 it's at least an hour long, winding 100 feet down to the entrance to Macy's. Santa's little photo elf says he hopes to sell 90 "specials" -- two large photos, four wallet-sized and two free key-chains for only $19.99.
The morning-shift Santa Claus, 68-year-old Roy Given, really brings them in, from as far away as Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, his helpers say. During lunch, Mr. Given says the kids "seem to be asking for less this year."
Meanwhile, the selling goes on. Impostors, a costume jewelry store, is mostly empty at midmorning, but sales ultimately will pick up.
At one of several carts in the ground floor midway, 17-year-old Ken Driscoll demonstrates the amazing "Zipper Tie," a high-tech improvement on the old clip-on necktie.
Ed Maddy of Dundalk rests on a bench and guards a bunch of shopping bags with little zeal. He thinks the best indicators of sales are the collectibles stores, like Bodzer's and Wang's, where his mother-in-law works.
"If they've got money to spend, they're going to go to collectibles, because they're not cheap stuff," Mr. Maddy says.
Too busy to stop
As the hour approaches noon, Melanie Turnbaugh tries without much enthusiasm or success to convince women to submit to a 15-minute survey about low-calorie salad dressings. If she conducts more surveys than any of her colleagues today, she'll receive a $2.25 bonus.
Most regional shopping malls have an office of her company, Consumer Pulse, or some other market survey firm. What better place to find the consumer? The International Council of Shopping Centers reports that 70 percent of the adult population visits regional malls, defined as those with 300,000 to 1 million square feet, and they do it about 3.9 times a month.
White Marsh, owned and operated by the Rouse Co., estimates its average shopper comes to the mall about 40 times a year and spends $68 each visit.
The 10-year-old White Marsh is among Rouse's more successful Maryland malls, selling more than $300 a year for each of its 400,000 square feet of non-department store retail space. Only the Mall in Columbia (about $340 per square foot) and the Gallery at Harborplace (about $350) do better.
The bar at the Sir Walter Raleigh restaurant is both a literal and figurative oasis from the madding crowds after lunchtime.
But outside, the 65-member Maryland Youth Orchestra strikes up "Joy to the World," and its director mentions the tapes available for a contribution of $10.
By midafternoon the growing proliferation of shopping bags makes it clear the browsers are being replaced by the buyers. At the Impulse electronics store, Pat and Mike Tarlton Jr. have given in to son Mike III and agreed to buy him a Panasonic portable CD stereo cassette recorder for $250, down from $330.
The prize for best shopper has to go to John Ritz, an insurance salesman from Churchville. Surrounded by shopping bags at Eddie Bauer, the Harford countian estimates he spent close to $1,000 today, all throughout the mall, on clothing, appliances and knicknacks for his family.
"I can only get him out here one day," says his wife, Pat.
Despite the arrival of sunset, the crowds have yet to slacken. Some of them attend Kellie Caruso's show outside of Woodie's. The Perry Hall High School student performs songs accompanied by sign language with a group of youngsters.
If Barbie and the Little Mermaid reign for the pre-teen crowd, the hunks and babes of the TV show "Beverly Hills 90210" are merchandised everywhere else.
For teen-age music, a clerk named Eric at Tape World says the best-sellers are Boys to Men, U2 and Metallica. Kay-Bee toy store assistant manager Jeff Miloro says Super Nintendo (at $199.99) is trailing Genesis (at $149.99) in the war of the home computer games.
The most popular books this season are Tom Clancy's "Sum of All Fears," Stephen King's "Needful Things," and Alexandra Ripley's "Scarlett," which has sold out already, a Waldenbooks clerk named Jinny says just before closing.
Bing Crosby has the last word in this now-nearly empty mall, as another rendition of his "White Christmas" oozes to entertain the janitors, the stragglers and merchants closing up shop just before 10.
The Christmas retail season's final figures won't be known until after New Year's. But many White Marsh retailers agreed that Saturday was an unusually strong day.
"I did my day by 6 o'clock," says Walter Gordon, manager of J.C. Penney's children's department, referring to when he met his expected sales quota for the day.
And what of Bodzer's, purveyor of pretty but expensive non-necessities? Mr. Bodzer's father, Steve, unlocks the door briefly to report on the final count. "We made the target," he says: $10,000.