'Twas 10 days before Christmas, and all through the mall, shoppers were searching for the best deals of all. "Sale" signs were hung in the windows with care, in hopes that consumers would all buy their share.
But Dasher and Dancer won't be pulling as heavy a load this year as in 1990: Many people aren't buying as much because of a recession that has left many jobless and others carefully guarding their wallets.
"The secret is to get them (family members) what they really needand really want," said Charles Hinerman of Sykesville. "We're tryingto get more for our dollar."
Hinerman and his wife, Regina, decided not to buy gifts for each other this year to save money to buy fortheir seven children and 10 grandchildren, he said.
Marcia Parkinson, owner of a women's clothing store at Carrolltowne Mall in Eldersburg, said shoppers are being more particular. "They're looking more for quality. People are shopping a lot before making a decision," shesaid.
Sales at Marcia's have picked up in the last two weeks, butParkinson said she'll be surprised if December's sales match those of last year.
"I think they got off to a slower start this year," she said.
Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailer's Association in Annapolis, said, "We knew we had a reluctant, cautious consumer out there. People are value- and price-conscious. That's a reflection of the economic situation."
Ken Simms, manager at Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Westminster's Cranberry Mall, said November sales wereslightly above last year's; December sales are down a bit.
"People are shopping more carefully," Simms said, adding that they're buying more clothing this year.
But not everyone is acting the Scrooge this season.
"I'm buying as much, if not more," said Connie Thompson of Hampstead. "Every year I say I'm going to spend less, and I don't."
Shoppers like Thompson make merchants at Cranberry Mall happy, said Kathi McAvoy, mall marketing manager. In fact, weekly surveys of merchants show sales are up over last year, McAvoy said, adding that some stores reported increases of 10 percent, while others are up 35 percent.
"Things have been very good," she said.
Merchants are offering special deals, which are detailed in free red and green handouts distributed by mall management, McAvoy said.
Sales of photos with Santa, who hears Christmas wishes at a display in the mall, are up 40 percent over last year, she said. Prices for the photo packages range from $6.50 to $18.95.
Jenny Guy of Boring, Baltimore County, who was shopping in Westminster last week, said the best buys this year have been on clothing.
"I only sales shop," said guy, who even found Christmas cards for half price at Cranberry Mall.
To save money, Guy said she's only sending cards to out-of-town friends. Local friends will hear "Merry Christmas" by phone, she said.
A Christmas club savings account she started last year enabled her to buy as much as she did last year.
"Every year, it's hard for us (at Christmas time)," said Guy, who is married and has two young sons.
Sandy Scott, co-owner of The Hickory Stick gift shop in Westminster, said her extended family isn't buying gifts for everyone this year. They drew names and set a $25 price limit, she said.
"That helped a lot," she said, noting her husband, Steve, a carpenter, was out of work at the beginning of this year, which meant money has been tight.
Their two children have been "patient" about the limited budget, she said, so she didn't want to disappoint them this Christmas. She's spending some of the money she would have spent on other family members on the children, Scott said.
At her shop, sales are steady even though customers are buying more "practical" gifts, she said. They'renot buying as many Christmas-related items, but are opting for knickknacks.