Crowds please retailers Despite merchants' optimism, many shoppers remain frugal.

December 18, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

With only six shopping days remaining until Christmas, Baltimore-area merchants are expressing optimism after large numbers of customers, perhaps driven inside by chilly weather, finally began appearing at regional malls and local retail centers.

Many shoppers, however, say they are still holding fast to their purse strings, fearful of the economy's continued stagnation and determined to hold the line on holiday spending.

From Towson Town Center to Westview Mall, from the Md. 2 corridor in Glen Burnie to Main Street in Annapolis, area retailers and consumers appear to be living out predictions for Christmas shopping season 1991.

Despite the surge in traffic at retail centers last weekend, industry analysts are still projecting only slight growth in sales over 1990, a season marred by consumers' concerns over the Persian Gulf War.

Thomas Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association, says the past weekend was the best for local retailers since the weekend after Thanksgiving. But the weekdays in between have been "really down," Saquella says.

Despite optimism that the impending holiday and colder weather will see business steadily picking up, Saquella agrees with the National Retail Federation prediction that there will be a modest 2 percent growth in holiday sales over last year.

"The people are out there, but they're just holding back," says Saquella.

This year, the concern is over unknowns generated by the current recession. Shoppers are hunting for bargains, with some even expressing relief that the current climate has dictated frugality.

"We're getting back to what Christmas is supposed to be," says Dot Ziegler, shopping for family and friends at the Chesapeake Square K mart in Glen Burnie.

Ziegler, whose husband owns Whitey's Supermarket in Linthicum, says she is accustomed to buying lavishly at Christmas time, but the economy has hurt the family business and she's cutting back.

All the major gifts will be handmade, including quilts for her grown children and holiday outfits for the grandchildren, she says. Her biggest expense will be a "large check" to her uncle, who is a parish priest in Houston working with the poor.

"When you see so much bad and sadness in the world, I just don't want to do [the shopping]," she says. "We get so caught up in the merchandising of Christmas, we forget to stop and listen to the kids singing Christmas carols in the mall. I'm going to listen this year."

Elsewhere, the sentiment was similar. Customers crowded into local shopping centers even on Monday morning, but few carts were being filled to capacity and few customers wielded the larger shopping bags.

At Annapolis Mall early Monday evening, shoppers gravitated toward stores promoting large discounts. Meanwhile, stores such as Bailey Banks & Biddle and Kay Jewelers stood virtually empty.

One shopper, rummaging through a rack of discounted men's ties at the Hecht Co., said she is buying only when she knows what the person receiving the gift wants and is "staying away from frivolous things."

The shopper, who asked not to be identified, said the economy forced her to sell her business -- a weight loss clinic in Waldorf -- at a loss last October. She has gone back to her previous profession, nursing. And while she's shopping for the same number of people this year, she's buying less.

Evidence that the current recession may have hit the middle class hardest was everywhere.

On historic Main Street in Annapolis, Poppets Inc., where an imported doll can run several thousand dollars, appealing to middle-class buyers has been difficult, according to the shop's saleswoman, Betty Baker.

For the first time this year Poppets is carrying mass-produced dolls in the $30 range with some success.

"The very expensive items are moving," Baker says. "The lower-price items are moving. It's the items priced in the middle that aren't selling as well.

"It's reflective of middle-income people not wanting to spend the money," she adds.

At nearby Heaven On Earth, store manager Maggie Goddard says business is going well because of the shop's emphasis on merchandise with "traditional values."

The shop sells a variety of jewelry, toys, sweaters and pottery items imported from around the world. Many items are moderately priced.

"A lot of it has to do with the products you sell," Goddard says. "We sell more practical items."

Retailers have long predicted that this year's buyer will be more

conservative, with practicality replacing luxury and value replacing extravagance.

Caught off guard by last year's dismal performance during the holidays, many retailers have also embraced the conservative approach. Many have trimmed their inventories and are relying on bigger pre-Christmas Day sales.

Even mall management offices have taken to promoting "traditional" items they say are selling fast this year.

At discount-oriented Eastpoint Mall, sweaters, gloves, educational toys, electronic games and small jewelry are hot items, says Mall Manager Dawn Bunyon.

"Customers are really shopping for price," Bunyon says. "They're holding out for last-minute sales."

Meanwhile, at Westview Mall in Catonsville a survey of last weekend's traffic showed a 25 percent increase in customers over the same period last year. Mall officials are banking on the mall's recent $20 million renovation and the introduction of discount stores to boost the mall's holiday sales figures by at least 20 percent over last year, says Mall Manager Alan J. Fink.

"People insist on going to visit Towson Town Center and they're going to Owings Mills to look around," says Fink. "But they're buying their gifts at malls like Westview."

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