With the regularity of the summer solstice and the Energizer bunny, Maryland shoppers yesterday poured into stores throughout the region with a belly-full of turkey and a clutch of credit, kicking off the annual Christmas shopping season.
But for all the post-Pilgrim pageantry, a subdued sense of caution seemed to prevail among shoppers and merchants the day after Thanksgiving -- traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year.
Moms, dads and baby strollers were out in force, but they didn't appear to be lugging a lot of Christmas loot. And those that were carrying bags seemed to be carrying fewer of them. Judging by the crowd at midday, for instance, the biggest draw at the Harborplace pavilion wasn't the assortment of shops but the one-man carnival-juggler outside who captivated a crowd of some 200 erstwhile shoppers.
"It's been steady, but it's not been crazy," said Cathy Stoddard, manager of the Grey Horse antique shop in the pavilion. She reported seeing a lot of "be-back" customers, those scrutinizing shoppers who look, then come back later.
"I'm finding they're thinking more, they're studying more," Ms. Stoddard said. "It's not as much impulse. I guess the best word is 'caution.' "
Several retailers downtown and in suburban malls compared "Black Friday" -- the nickname for the traditional Christmas shopping day kickoff -- merely to a decent Saturday.
Such reports come as no surprise to retail analysts, most of whom have predicted a modest selling season.
Looking in their crystal ball, they have seen conflicting forces quelling people's appetite to spend. Although unemployment, interest rates and inflation are relatively low, consumer debt is high, wage gains are low and consumers seem to be ferreting out bargains.
Enjoying the sights
Some, like Joan D'Addio, a New Yorker visiting her son and daughter-in-law in Baltimore, weren't buying at all. "Actually, we're just kind of looking around and enjoying the sights," she said, resting on a bench in the pavilion. "We came to see Santa, actually, and we did get to see him."
For retailers, that doesn't bode well, particularly because for many of them the Christmas season represents 30 to 50 percent of their annual sales.
What's more, tepid shopping often forces merchants to slash prices. And that means slimmer profit margins.
A recent ABC News/Money magazine poll showed that 36 percent of Americans plan to spend less money on gifts for friends and family this Christmas, while only 13 percent plan to spend more.
The numbers seemed to be reflected yesterday at the Gallery at Harborplace, where business was brisk but hardly frenetic.
"There's been a lot of foot traffic," said Lori Mongelluzzo, a manager of the Ann Taylor store in the Gallery. "The customers coming in aren't your typical downtown shoppers. But we're hoping for a big holiday season, and we expect that it will pick up more in the coming weeks."
Most of the shoppers appeared to be day-trippers, more intent to simply browse than part with holiday cash. "We're here mainly to have lunch and walk around," said Sally Epstein, a Pennsylvanian who came to town with her father to visit relatives for Thanksgiving.
Ms. Epstein did more than just walk, however, as evidenced by the Williams-Sonoma bag dangling from her arm.
The scene was similar at the Nordstrom department store in Towson Town Center, where afternoon customers ambled to classical music courtesy of an in-store piano player. Few sported bags of merchandise.
"The aisles in the mall were jammed earlier today," said Trish Neumann, a Guilford resident who at 3 p.m. fought county traffic to buy a pair of Levi's for herself and a present for a friend's baby. "You couldn't walk without bumping into someone."
'Busy but not mobbed'
But the mall merchants themselves were a bit more lukewarm in reacting to the volume of shoppers.
"It feels like a good Saturday more than anything else," said Kristina M. Gill, a sales clerk behind the Lancome cosmetics counter in Nordstrom. "We're busy but we're not mobbed. The clothing and other departments I know were a lot busier."
Few retailers in the mall, however, were busier than the security guards directing traffic outside the mall.
Despite the help, many hopeful shoppers careened around Towson Town Center's seven-deck parking garage, vainly seeking the rare open space.
Still, few complained or even looked stressed about the situation.
"Anytime people come to a mall on Black Friday," Ms. Gill said, "they know what to expect."