The wreaths were up, the bells were jingling and a jazzy rendition of "Winter Wonderland" was oozing from the walls at Security Square Mall this week, as retailers of all stripes and sizes prepared for today, the start of the holiday retail season.
For some stores, this year's retail season hasn't caused any undue concern, despite the recession and the surveys that show consumer confidence in the dumps.
"We're planning to have a modest sales increase" over last year's Christmas season, said Thomas Fingleton, chairman of Arlington, Va.-based Hecht's department stores, a division of the May Department Stores Co.
Hecht's is planning nothing more than its usual limited holiday sales, Mr. Fingleton said. "We'll be doing things similar to previous years."
In that regard, Hecht's is in the minority, and with Christmas accounting for more than half of many retailers' annual revenue, the stakes are high. Most consumers can expect deep discounts and longer sales this season.
Throughout Security mall, the sale signs loom large. The Fashion Bug's "Holiday Style Sale," which started this week, promises up to one-third off on many items. "We're reducing merchandise as much as possible so people will come in the store and shop, and still keep our heads above water," said Assistant Manager Sonia Bond.
Ms. Bond said sales are being extended in light of the store's slow business so far this season. "Let's just hope Friday is the big day," she said.
At Marvin's Sports City, the "Hi Ho Holiday Sale" is under way, and the Sam Goody music store's "Holidays Be Jammin' Sale" is in swing.Shingar of India is offering up to 50 percent off for its women's apparel, and at Accessory Place some items are "an additional 75 percent off."
Reginald Shaw, manager of the Merry-Go-Round clothing store -- the "gift headquarters," according to a sign in the window -- is confident the store will take in 20 percent more than it did last year during the same period, although that would be half the increase of the 1990 Christmas season. "Long as the traffic flow keeps up, we'll have no problems," Mr. Shaw said.
George DeLoatch, manager of the K&K Kaybee toy store, said the outlet is "packed and ready" for the crunch, whatever its intensity, with extra inventory and a few more staffers. "I think it's going to go good," he said. "With the economy the way it is, we're holding our ground."
The Rotunda mall in Baltimore hopes to attract shoppers with free gift wrapping for any Rotunda purchase, except groceries, said Michael Richman, president of the merchants' association there. He said his four-store Recordmasters chain has started advertising weekly sales that will run throughout the season.
"I'm a little concerned that the economy, and the way [consumers] feel about the economy, will affect sales," he said.
Fleet Feet Sports has been planning its Dec. 7 "midnight madness" sale for several weeks, according to Manager Brooke McCrory. Last year, she said, "we didn't even have to have one -- business had picked up noticeably a week ago this time [last year]."
Others are more sanguine. The Tomlinson Craft Gallery has no special promotions planned for "Black Friday" or beyond, and Jill Kearns, manager of the Cook's Cupboard, said the store hasn't even increased its inventory.
At the Bead, a popular Rotunda women's clothing and accessories store, the preparations are done, according to co-owner Idy Harris. "Everything's ready to go," she said. "We stocked the store as full as we could," with many items priced at $10 or less.
Likewise, the Sharper Image in the Gallery at Harborplace is emphasizing lower-priced items and more clothing and footwear, according to Assistant Manager Ken Dykstra. There are 20 percent discounts on about seven items, part of the store's "early Santa reward program," which is an effort to "get people out and buying early," Mr. Dykstra said.
Brooks Brothers across the hall at the Gallery has already laid out its primary promotion for Christmas: a long table overflowing with $29 dress shirts. And the store's traditional men's suit sale will start next month, Manager Gordon Ashby said.
"This is a tough Christmas season because there's only four weeks instead of five," he explained, due to the late Thanksgiving holiday. The Gallery Brooks Brothers has initiated a new program to help gift-buyers who feel the time crunch: a gift registry that works much like a bridal registry.
Mr. Ashby said he mailed out about 1,000 letters last week and is waiting for the response.