Four-year-old Matthew Owens joined throngs of Christmas shoppers Friday, enduring five straight hours in the stores without so much as a peep.
Then, as he sat munching popcorn, his gaze fell on a familiar, white-bearded figure in a red suit -- leaving Annapolis Mall.
That did it. Matthew had proved he could shop-til-you-drop with the best of those who had braved packed parking lots and traffic.
But even as he'd helped his mother and grandmother choose gifts for others, he'd made a secret Christmas list of his own. And now he would miss the one person who needed to hear it.
Matthew and his mother, Carol Owens, took off after Santa, who assured them he'd be back after a short break. The youngster settled down to wait.
His mother reflected on the day's purchases tucked away in her car.
Owens and her son and scores of others kept local retailers' cash registers ringing on the official start of the Christmas selling season -- at least enough to maintain or slightly boost sales from this time last year.
Some retailers at county malls said they'd hoped for better on what traditionally has been the year's biggest retail day. The day starts a season in which some stores reap half their yearly profits.
Other merchants, allowing for shoppers' fears of a recession and more cautious spending, said staying competitive this year will mean enticing customers with more than the usual sales, festive decorations, gift wrap stations and photos with Santa Claus.
"This is usually the busiest day of the year," said Robert Bartolomucci, manager of K-mart in Crofton. "It's not what it should be. Basically, we're the same as every other retailer. We have a good day and a bad day.
Everyone's been saying it will be a bad Christmas season and people aren't spending and people are starting to believe it."
To draw shoppers, K-mart stores in the county plan "Moonlight Madness" promotions to give out $100 in gift certificates every Sunday evening between now and Christmas. The stores also plan two-hour Christmas Fests every Friday and Saturday evening with in-store specials.
Managers at Marley Station in Glen Burnie attribute mall merchants' sales increases to more eye-catching window and interior displays, reduced prices on some goods and services, better customer service and extras such as free shopping bags, strollers and wheelchairs, and coat and package checks.
Throughout the Baltimore region, store managers have trimmed inventories, hired fewer Christmas helpers, expanded promotions, offered more exclusive merchandise and stressed courteous treatment of customers.
That was one thing Billie Stolz noticed right away Friday at Annapolis Mall.
"They have been more helpful," said Stolz, a North Carolina resident visiting her daughter for Thanksgiving. "I've been sought out today. In general, it expedites your shopping."
Despite retailers' extra efforts, some shoppers are not parting with their money as readily as usual, or as early in the season.
"Things don't cost more and people are still making the same paycheck," said Joe Sedges, manager of Shaw's Jeweler in Marley Station. "But they fear what the future will be bringing and it's putting them off from buying."
Ernie Dargan, manager of Kitchen Bazaar in Annapolis, said business was slow on Friday, even in a store that has responded to significant sales increases by restocking inventory.
"A lot of customers check out the prices and leave," Dargan said. "I put on more help, thinking it would be swamped, but it's like a regular Saturday, not a day after a holiday. This is the first year we're really prepared, and we have to worry about the market."
At Richman Brothers in Marley Station, Manager Michael Liberto has watched sales shoot up for the past four years as one of the county's newer malls has gained more recognition.
This year, though, "it's been tough," Liberto said. "But business is good, considering the economy."
A majority of mid-Atlantic retailers surveyed by a trade retail and distribution group of accounting firm Deloitte & Touche believe the area's economy is in a recession. Retailers surveyed said consumers will spend less for the holidays.
Despite such gloomy predictions, some companies continue to project healthy profits and see no reason to alter marketing plans.
"We have not changed our sales promotion strategy that was planned six months ago," said Peggy Disney, divisional vice president of public relations for the Hecht Company, with stores in Glen Burnie and Annapolis.
"We're sticking to the calendar. And we are hiring Christmas help."
While retailers attempted to spread holiday cheer among their customers Friday and Santa Claus appeared for the first time at area malls, some shoppers still found the day after Thanksgiving too early for Christmas.
"They're shopping for themselves," said Linda Coate, manager of August Max Woman in Marley Station. "You can tell because we're throwing people into the dressing rooms."