It wasn't the ravenous crowd of the 1980s, with shoppers pawing over merchandise and pulling out plastic to pay for everything from laughing golf balls to Fendi pocketbooks. But it certainly was no ghost town either.
The packed parking lots and lines of people that curled from money machines at area malls yesterday said two things: Not only were people out in respectable numbers, but they were doing some buying too.
Both gave a boost to retailers who have been prepping themselves for a less-than-merry Christmas season, although still hoping for the best.
Although holiday hype has been in the works since Halloween, yesterday officially marked the start of the Christmas selling season. The next 31 days will be do or die for many retailers who have been experiencing one of the softest selling years of recent memory despite a barrage of promotions and gimmicks. The holiday season can represent up to 50 percent of many stores' annual profits.
So yesterday's shopper turnout at White Marsh, Owings Mills, Hunt Valley, Harborplace, Marley Station and other area malls spawned a little Christmas cheer and hope that the entire year will not be a wash.
"It hasn't been as busy as I thought. I thought it was going to be crazed. That's what they say about the day after Thanksgiving," said Susan Gold, who was selling her handmade jewelry made from beads from Africa and Asia at a Macy's table in Owings Mills. "But so far it's a nice flow of people. It's been good."
"I see a lot of shopping bags, and that's my measure of success," said Dick Hackett, the new mall manager at Marley Station. It was about 4 p.m. and the parking lot at the mall was completely full, he said, and the Macy's there had sold out of Paddington bears. "We were expecting the season to be slower. But it's not -- at least not today."
The day after Thanksgiving has long been a popular day for Christmas shopping no matter how the economy is doing, so the true measure of retailers' success won't be until later. And many economists, analysts and merchants are anticipating a slower than normal holiday because of the crisis in the Middle East and other economic uncertainties.
As a result, shoppers will see retailers cutting inventory and putting it on sale sooner than last year and offering more customer services, such as gift wrapping, to boost Christmas spending, said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association.
Mr. Saquella warns that shoppers should buy early for the best selection because of the leaner inventories.
Despite the smaller supplies and weakened economy, several area merchants have said they are hiring as many temporary workers to help with the Christmas season as last year.
Some merchants like Neal Williams, manager of the Wild Pair in Hunt Valley, found yesterday to be lackluster. The shoe store is having a special through today -- buy one pair, get the second at half off -- but people still weren't buying, he said.
"It hasn't been very busy," said Mr. Williams. "I have seen other Fridays and Saturdays that have been busier."
Shoppers say they may not be spending as frivolously as in years past, but they still will be spending.
Children's toys like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and merchandise featuring cartoon characters are expected to be popular. And for adults, cordless drills and home appliances are expected to be big sellers.
"I will spend the same as last year, but I will look harder for sales," said Sue Bowman of York, Pa., who was shopping at Owings Mills yesterday. Her shopping bags were perched against one of her legs as she took a brief respite and smoked a cigarette.
"Christmas only comes once a year and it's special."