ELDERSBURG - No one had to fight for a parking space, getting help from a sales person was a snap and anyone wanting to sit on Santa's lap could waltz right up without even waiting in line.
On what is supposed to be the busiest shopping day of the year -- the day that strikes fear in all but the power-shoppers among us -- business at the Carrolltowne Mall here was far from booming on Friday.
"It's been real slow," said Mary Hill, a sales clerk at the Hickory Farms Gift Center. "A lot of people have been coming in and looking, but not a whole lot are buying."
"It kind of goes in spurts," said Blaze Starr, a former burlesque artist who for the last three years has been selling her handmade jewelry in the Carrolltowne Mall. "I like to run this like a supermarket. I just sort of stand here until someone reaches over toward me with some money." She said she sells out of her jewelry every year, and expects to do so this year.
Just beyond Starr's booths was a practically empty Peebles department store. Even though sales clerk Christine Mitchell insisted that most of the day had been "really crazy," she and her colleagues almost equaled the number of customers in the store.
And while the scene here was not replayed throughout Carroll's malls and Main Streets on Friday, the start of the five-week holiday shopping blitz was far from hectic.
Perhaps Carroll's shoppers were influenced by a sagging economy. Or, with Christmas on a Tuesday, shoppers have one more day to buy than they had last year.
Retailers here and throughout Maryland are bracing for a lackluster holiday season, with the Maryland Retail Merchant's Association predicting flat or only slightly rising sales between now and Dec. 24.
How retailers do in large measure can determine how Carroll's economy fares. According to data compiled by the county's Department of Economic and Community Development, retailing accounts for nearly $620 million a year in sales. As the county's largest employer -- some 601 retailers employ about 7,400 people -- sales health is important.
Retailers can expect to earn as much as half of their annual profits during the five-week period that began Friday, national economists say.
While Carrolltowne Mall didn't resemble a traditional Black Friday human stampede, Westminster's Cranberry Mall was teeming with shoppers and browsers.
By about 3:30 p.m., the mall's 2,600-space parking lot was all but full, and the halls were crammed with people. One couple, sitting down for a smoke between armloads of holiday goods, said that they had just about finished their Christmas shopping.
"We've been coming out on this day for the past several years," said Robert Miller of Manchester. He and his wife, Susie, sat just outside Leggett's department store, smoking a cigarette. "We really don't have anything else to do today, and we're about three-fourths done with our shopping already," he said.
Across the mall, munching on a large portion of french fries drenched in vinegar, Jacque and John Kelly, and their 12-year-old son Sean, were taking a break from a couple of hours at the mall.
"We never plan on coming out the day after Thanksgiving," John said.
"But we did come down here for something specific." The Kelly's said they don't intend to alter their shopping habits this year, even with the current economic uncertainty.
"We'll spend about the same," Jacque said.
Not everyone traversing the mall's 510,000 square feet was making a dent in the holiday shopping list. And some of the mall's 80 storekeepers were reporting slightly slower sales than on Black Friday a year ago.
"Sales seem a little down," said Jack Crawmer, an owner of Golf, Etc.
"At one time, sales in golf stores didn't seem to get affected by the slowing economy. It used to be that only rich people played golf. But that's not true any more."
Carroll's shoppers weren't confined to the souped-up hallways of area shopping centers.
In the Main Street sunshine Friday, Westminster shoppers went from store to store, sometimes cramming a usually empty sidewalk.
"We've been really busy," said Dottie Jailey, a sales clerk at Mather's in the first block of East Main Street. "Things are picking up as we get into the Christmas season."