After slow Christmas past, retailers find shoppers cutting loose this year


Christmas shoppers are spending and charging with abandon this year, boosting revenues for many retailers in the county over last year's holiday shopping season.

"People are definitely spending their money. Last year anything that cost over $75 or $100 didn't sell. This year, that's exactly the items that are selling very well," said John Hall, owner of Potowmack Toy Shop, in the Mall in Columbia.

Like many retailers this Christmas shopping season, Mr. Hall hasn't had to entice customers to buy with last-minute holiday sales.

"Just about everybody had sales the last two weeks before Christmas last year. This year you see very little of that," said Mr. Hall, who has worked in the toy industry for 22 years.

Mr. Hall has a sale each October. That helped him gauge what items would sell well at Christmas and what the spending mood of the shoppers would be.

"I could tell from that we'd be about 10 percent ahead of last year's sales. I'm about dead on target. I'm pretty happy with that."

One trend his sale wasn't able to predict was just how crazy people would be for what's become the bane of any parent waiting until the last minute -- Power Rangers.

Like every other toy store in the county, not to mention most of the nation, Mr. Hall says he "sold out of them a long time ago."

Taboo ($30), a board game, and a doll house set marketed by Fisher-Price ($80) have taken over as the sales leaders at Potowmack Toys. Mr. Hall estimates he's sold 5,000 Taboo games this holiday shopping season, which traditionally starts the first weekend in November and ends Dec. 24.

But it's not only for Power Rangers and other toys that county shoppers are laying out the cash.

Music, books and toys -- any toys -- have been especially strong sellers this season, say county retailers.

At the Kemp Mill Music store in the Snowden Square shopping center in Columbia, the sale registers have been playing a fast tune lately.

"Everything in this store is exploding," said Gonelle Jones, manager at the store. All categories of music, from Gangsta Rap to Christmas classics, are zooming out of the store.

Christmas tunes have done especially well.

Of course, you would expect a store specializing in Christmas theme items to do well this time of year.

But sales at the Christmas Co. shop in the historic district of Ellicott City have been much better than good. "They've been very good. Very, very good," said a delighted Ed Lilley, owner of the store.

He estimates sales are running 30 percent ahead of last year's holiday season.

Virtually everything in stock has enjoyed strong sales, says Mr. Lilley, from the German and Polish glass Christmas ornaments ($2 to $25) to the pewter model trains ($60 each).

Mr. Lilley, expanded the store this year by about 500 square feet, which allowed him to broaden his inventory.

"The expansion has certainly helped our sales, but even without it I still think people would be spending more this year. I get the sense people were ready to cut loose this Christmas," he said.

Even the downright unusual is selling. Consider the "Rein Cat," $4.80, found at Cats a la Carte, a cart-based vendor in the Columbia mall, or the electric neck massager at Brookstone's, also in the mall.

Both have been hot sellers in this Christmas buying season.

What's a "Rein Cat"? It's a cat-sized headband adorned with reindeer-like antlers, of course. It's enjoyed strong sales at Cats a la Carte. The crimson and white Santa Claus style caps ($6.95) -- also cat-sized -- have been very popular too the past week, said Jessie George, who helps manage the cart.

"This week people aren't as picky as they had been about what they buy or what they spend," said Ms. George. "I had one woman just buy $250 worth of stuff."

David Beaver, manager of Brookstone's in the Columbia Mall also has noticed that people don't seem spendthrift-minded this week.

"They don't care what the boxes look like or what something costs," he said.

To wit: Brookstone's "Kneading Shiatsu Massager," priced at $169.

The undulating pincher-looking nubs that are supposed to give you that Shiatsu feeling look like something that might show up in a Stephen King thriller. But that hasn't deterred buyers.

It's on the best-seller list right now, said Mr. Beaver. "We're almost sold out," he said.

Other Christmas sales trends do seem to have a reason behind the spending madness.

To Kill a Lawyer ($19.99), a jigsaw puzzle that requires players to solve a mystery, has been a big seller at What Puzzles You?, a cart-based vendor specializing in adult games in the Columbia mall.

"We sold out this week," said Jim Bartel, a sales employee. "People take one look at the title and buy it."

Mr. Hall, the toy shop owner, says he's noticed that customers seem to have loosened up and gotten more into the Christmas mood just in this last week before the big day.

"People seemed to be pretty somber up until this week. Now people seem to be laughing more and enjoying Christmas. I know I am."

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