Shira Nudell had lost her daughter Tzivia. This wasn't so surprising because she had five other very energetic children to keep track of.
She and her husband, Shuey, had brought six of their eight offspring to Owings Mills Mall for a little after-Christmas shopping. They went first to Macy's, getting off to a quick start - a calculator watch for 8-year-old Binny, and a pair of earmuffs and an outfit for 12-year-old Penina, among other purchases. But there was a lot left to be accomplished, and where was Tzivia?
Just then Shira Nudell's cell phone rang: Tzivia, who's 19, had found her way into the Gap and discovered a scarf she liked. It was on hold, and she needed money to pay for it.
"That's what she does," Nudell said with affectionate exasperation.
Like shoppers all over the region and the country, the Nudells took part in an annual holiday ritual yesterday: the post-Christmas search for bargains. The Nudells, who are visiting from Chicago, estimated they had saved $100.
"We got an $80 skirt for $27," Nudell said. "That was sweet."
Although some stores had tried to lure shoppers by opening as early as 6 a.m., the mall was busy but not packed. Customers and retailers agreed that traffic was lighter than usual. Some blamed the economy, while others surmised that because it was Sunday, many potential shoppers might be attending church or watching the Ravens instead of madly trolling for rock-bottom deals.
This was bad news for retailers. After struggling with disappointing sales throughout the holiday season, sellers across the country were hoping that shoppers would buy more in the week after Christmas.
For the third year in a row, merchants nationwide say they are depending on a late rush to save the season. Last year, a post-Christmas spending surge gave struggling retailers a big boost. But in 2002, the last-minute bump was not enough to overcome the pre-Christmas slump.
"It's not real busy today," said Kristen Songer, assistant manager of Pro Image, an athletic clothing store in the Owings Mills Mall.
Others agreed with her assessment. "I expected for it to be more crowded," said Richard Fortune, who got to the mall at 9:30 a.m.
After two hours, Fortune had bought some clothes and a pair of shoes. Before the day was over, he expected to buy two more pairs. Fortune, a barber in Baltimore, really likes shoes: He has 237 pairs, which he keeps in three closets.
"I don't like wearing the same thing twice," he said.
Many came to return ill-fitting or ill-conceived gifts. Yvonne Daniel was probably one of the few who wanted to exchange a gift she'd bought for herself.
For Hanukkah, she had found herself some pajamas at Macy's (officially, they were a gift from her daughter). But somehow, she'd made a mistake.
"I bought myself the wrong size," Daniel said. "Smart move."
She hadn't tried them on until she was home. Now the store didn't have the right size, so she was out of luck, at least temporarily.
But the day wasn't a bust: Her husband had found himself a nice pair of navy blue flannel pajamas. They were 60 percent off. Add in a card that sliced off 20 percent more, and they ended up paying $12, saving about $30.
Lisa Huot of Washington picked up a sweater that had been marked down by 75 percent. But she was even more pleased with a smiling snowman that looked like a large, knit medicine ball. It was a late Christmas gift for her infant nephew. She wanted one for herself, too, but this was the last one.
"It's never gonna go out of style," she said as she squeezed the puffy, carrot-nosed creature.
For some, scouring these sales has become its own tradition. Liz Hough has gone post-Christmas shopping with her family for 15 straight years. Yesterday, she came to the mall with two adult daughters, Val Holmes and Keri Hough; her 15-year-old granddaughter, Amanda Aristidou; and her best friend, Peggy Wheeler.
The five got up early, drove from Finksburg and began shopping at 8:30 a.m. At noon, they were loaded down with bags of merchandise and had saved, by Liz Hough's estimation, several hundred dollars. They weren't sure how much they had spent.
"We don't buy anything that's not on sale," she said.
Wheeler even managed to pick up two Christmas presents for next year: two small statues, one of Santa Claus in a chef's outfit and another of him dressed as a policeman.
Now, with more than three hours of work behind them, the group needed a break. Time for another holiday tradition: lunch and margaritas at Don Pablo's, a Mexican restaurant near the mall.
Then they planned to return to the task of saving money by spending it.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.