At 9:15 a.m., before the stores officially open, White Marsh Mall is quiet and surreal. Little indicates the retailing bedlam that will unfold throughout one of the year's busiest shopping days.
Only the mall-walkers are out at this hour. James and Gertrude Armstrong, retirees who live in the White Marsh community, ignore the darkened store windows they pass at breakneck speed in their two-mile trek. But they only walk.
"We've learned the hard way," Mrs. Armstrong says. "We never come down here to eat or shop during the weekend."
That's because in a few minutes, when the clock strikes 10, the mall's 190 merchants -- not including five department stores and 26 eating establishments -- will open for a 12-hour frenzy of consumerism.
By the end of this day -- Saturday, Dec. 14 -- some 50,000 people will have made their way through White Marsh Mall's 1.1 million square feet. They will consume more than 500 hamburgers and 1,500 slices of pizza, all to the music of Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and every other crooner in the universe who ever recorded a Christmas carol.
Although some of the five department stores have been open since 8 a.m., few shoppers arrive before 10, the official opening time.
Eighty-one-year-old Joe Heming and his friends have the food court largely to themselves after their morning walk.
Tony Bodzer, co-owner of Bodzer's Collectibles, is a little miffed at the autonomy of the "anchors," as Sears, J.C. Penney, Macy's, Hecht's and Woodward & Lothrop are known. They can choose to stay open after 10 p.m., and that often leaves the little guys with no choice but to stay open, too.
But he's optimistic. "The weather's perfect: rainy," he says, predicting sales of $10,000 to $12,000, "a really good day for us."
This day, coming as it does less than two weeks before Christmas, promises to pack a lot of punch for area retailers, many of whom make well over half their annual "nut" in the last quarter of the year.
Retail sales have been slow so far this season, up a mere 0.4 percent in November. And many are looking with varying degrees of hope for consumers to wake up and pull this nation out of recession -- to drive to the mall and spend like they mean it.
At 10 a.m. the stores open, people start to stream in, and Santa Claus opens for business. The line started forming at 9:30, and by 10:30 it's at least an hour long, winding 100 feet down to the entrance to Macy's. Santa's little photo elf says he hopes to sell 90 "specials" -- two large photos, four wallet-sized and two free key-chains for only $19.99.
The morning-shift Santa Claus, 68-year-old Roy Given, really brings them in, from as far away as Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, his helpers say. During lunch, Mr. Given says the kids "seem to be asking for less this year."
Meanwhile, the selling goes on. Impostors, a costume jewelry store, is mostly empty at midmorning, but sales ultimately will pick up.
At one of several carts in the ground floor midway, 17-year-old Ken Driscoll demonstrates the amazing "Zipper Tie," a high-tech improvement on the old clip-on necktie.
Ed Maddy of Dundalk rests on a bench and guards a bunch of shopping bags with little zeal. He thinks the best indicators of sales are the collectibles stores, like Bodzer's and Wang's, where his mother-in-law works.
"If they've got money to spend, they're going to go to collectibles, because they're not cheap stuff," Mr. Maddy says.
Too busy to stop
As the hour approaches noon, Melanie Turnbaugh tries without much enthusiasm or success to convince women to submit to a 15-minute survey about low-calorie salad dressings. If she conducts more surveys than any of her colleagues today, she'll receive a $2.25 bonus.
Most regional shopping malls have an office of her company, Consumer Pulse, or some other market survey firm. What better place to find the consumer? The International Council of Shopping Centers reports that 70 percent of the adult population visits regional malls, defined as those with 300,000 to 1 million square feet, and they do it about 3.9 times a month.
White Marsh, owned and operated by the Rouse Co., estimates its average shopper comes to the mall about 40 times a year and spends $68 each visit.
The 10-year-old White Marsh is among Rouse's more successful Maryland malls, selling more than $300 a year for each of its 400,000 square feet of non-department store retail space. Only the Mall in Columbia (about $340 per square foot) and the Gallery at Harborplace (about $350) do better.
The bar at the Sir Walter Raleigh restaurant is both a literal and figurative oasis from the madding crowds after lunchtime.
But outside, the 65-member Maryland Youth Orchestra strikes up "Joy to the World," and its director mentions the tapes available for a contribution of $10.