Retailers' dreams of a cash-filled Christmas seemed about as remote Friday as did snow-lovers' dreams of a white Christmas.
"Things have been fair, not quite as good as we'd expected," said Peggy Haines,an office worker for 22 years at T. W. Mathers & Sons on Main Streetin Westminster. "I would say customers are expecting sales and are expecting us to keep offering discounts."
Not that Black Friday -- what is supposed to be the busiest day in American retailing -- didn't put on a show of holiday bustle.
Both Carrolltowne and Cranberry malls had jammed parking lots, crowded hallways and plenty of shoppers.
Santa -- somehow he was able to be just about everywhere a reporter looked -- was besieged with lines of waiting children.
And holiday carols, decorations and merchandise -- cheese balls, stuffed reindeer, bright green sweaters -- filledthe county's stores.
But, as is expected to be typical for the county's nearly 600 retailers this season, those shoppers were carryingfewer bags and spending fewer dollars than during 1990's lackluster five-week holiday shopping season.
The balmy, 75-degree sunshine did little to enhance the North Pole-inspired season actively portrayed in the county's malls and stores, even if it did bring people out of their homes.
"I don't usually come out the day after Thanksgiving, but it was such a nice day," said Betty Mays, a Manchester resident resting in front of the Garfield display behind Santa's throne in Cranberry Mall.
Asked how her shopping was going, she said, "I'm doing a lot of looking. I'm definitely cutting back this year."
A friend, Jeanette Adams of Spring Grove, Pa., echoed Mays' shopping prediction, saying she also was planning to spend less this holiday season than she has in the past.
They're not alone. Consumer confidence, according to a recent national poll by the Conference Board, a New York-based business research group, is at its lowest level since the recession of the early 1980s. And, to accommodate a shopping populaceless-inclined to part with their money, retailers are expected to continue their three-year trend of discounting merchandise earlier and more often.
"We're expecting a good Christmas season, although theconsumers are more conservative with their spending," said Steve Stewart, manager of the Leggett's department store in Cranberry Mall.
"I certainly expect to continue seeing discounts throughout the season," he said. "Customers are used to it, it's become the norm."
One store, apparently in an appeal to a market battered by almost two years of economic stagnation, advertised the beginning of "This Week'sRecession Buster Sale."
And, on just about every sales rack, in every window and hanging on every door was a sign announcing special markdowns.
Some of Carroll's shopkeepers have adjusted to the increasingly Scrooge-like habits of consumers.
The K mart stores in Westminster and Eldersburg -- as well as K marts nationwide -- threw their doors open for several hours on Thanksgiving. They also opened 7 a.m. Friday, hoping to lure bargain hunters inside their doors.
Other retailers scaled down the prices of merchandise they are offering this year.
"I have no doubt that people are going to buy this year," said JoAnne Ciepiela, owner of B. J. Bloomer's in Carrolltowne Mall. "But people are going to be a little bit more careful. I have stocked fewer high-ticket items this year."
Retailing is big business in Carroll; more than 7,400 employees are part of the industry that generates close to $600 million a year in revenues here.