Marc Sklar doesn't just have his fingers crossed this holiday shopping season.
"I've got my toes crossed," said the assistant manager of the Britches of Georgetown store at Owings Mills Town Center. "If it crosses, it gets crossed."
Mr. Sklar's watchful attitude is as close as you can get to a consensus among Maryland retailers as this year's much-anticipated and much-dreaded shopping marathon enters its final, most grueling laps. Some are more upbeat and some are almost despondent, but nearly all are nervously waiting to see what the consumer does next.
By most accounts, shoppers are coming to the malls in droves, as usual. But they are cautious, frugal buyers -- if they are buying at all -- according to more than a dozen retailers who were surveyed yesterday.
"The people are out there. They're just a little hesitant to spend right yet," said Joe Stiars, manager of Video Concepts in Annapolis Mall. Mr. Stiars said November was a weak month for the consumer electronics store but that it is "inevitable" people will buy at some point. "December's never let me down so far," he said.
Retailers warned that surveys of merchants are at best a crude tool for predicting sales. "In retail, whatever you hear you take with a pound of salt these days," Mr. Sklar said. "A grain won't do. You need a full pound."
Nevertheless, yesterday's sampling signaled that most Baltimore-area retailers expect to hold their own this season -- and maybe do better than last year.
Most retailers reported a strong start to the traditional Christmas shopping season the Friday after Thanksgiving. But Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association, said that "things just gradually slowed down Saturday and Sunday."
Several of the retailers surveyed agreed, but others reported strong sales through the weekend.
Bob Smyth Jr., vice president of the Albert S. Smyth Co. jewelry store in Timonium, said the Thanksgiving weekend was better than last year's. "People had smiles on their faces. They were enjoying what they were doing," he said.
Nevertheless, he said, consumers are more reluctant to flaunt their spending this year for fear of offending their less fortunate neighbors. "I think people are consuming,but they're not being as conspicuous about it," he said.
Mr. Smyth said that his company's sales for the season and the full year are running ahead of last year's and that "we expect that to remain the same."
Merchants dealing in luxury goods -- such as jewelers, furriers and consumer-electronics stores -- appear to be feeling the pinch more than those who deal in clothing or other necessities.
Carl Derito, owner of Kent-Fisher Furs on Howard Street, said it has been a "difficult season." The warm weather through much of October and November made the situation worse, he said, but "the economy affects it also -- big time."
And Troy Kupisch, manager of the Tuerke's luggage and gift store at Hunt Valley Mall, said sales were down a little this year as shoppers choose lower-priced items for gifts. "They spend more time, and they're more cautious about what they buy," he said.
Clothing retailers reported stronger sales. Jennifer Kurtz, assistant manager at the Lerner's women's apparel store at Owings Mills, said last week's sales were up 32 percent from those of the same week last year. And Tony Barabato, vice president of the Hamburger's men's clothing stores, said that "when the final gun sounds, it'll be a pretty respectable Christmas season" for the chain.
Nevertheless, Bob Thomson, mid-Atlantic regional director for the RMSA consulting firm in Riverside, Calif., said his company's informal surveys indicated severe troubles for retailers in the Baltimore-Washington area this year, with more than half likely to show lower sales and 15 percent to 20 percent in danger of going under.
"The cash flow is troublesome," Mr. Thomson said, adding that many stores are having trouble paying their bills because lenders won't extend credit. He said that in 25 years of following the retail business, "this is really the worst I've seen."