Last-minute Frenzy Fizzles

December 25, 1991|By David Conn

The day before Christmas, all through Harborplace, few creatures were stirring, save in the gift-wrapping place.

Deyoni Black, one of three gift-wrappers at Harborplace, saw few dull moments, as last-minute shoppers waited patiently for some last-minute wrapping paper.

Still, Ms. Black said, the lines were much longer last year. "I had lines going around the steps last year," she said. "This year, it's not like that."

That was pretty much the sentiment throughout the mall, although the few shoppers seemed to be more than willing to buy yesterday. Bob Mutschler, a New Yorker who was in Baltimore to visit relatives, was signing a Visa bill at Harbor Silver and Gold for a "gem tree," a glass egg paperweight and two silver bracelets, Mr. Mutschler's version of "planned panic shopping."

"I have a quasi-governmental job," he said. "No raises, but I won't get laid off either."

At Sharper Image in the Gallery at Harborplace, a clerk was having trouble processing charges because the phone lines to the credit services were all tied up, he said. But that kind of frenzy was an exception downtown, as most merchants seemed resigned to counting up the proceeds of what has been a mediocre Christmas shopping season.

Retail sales in November rose three-tenths of 1 percent, to $153.1 billion, the Commerce Department reported this month, and most analysts expect similarly lackluster sales in December.

"We're running right about the same as last year," said Ryan Meren, a sales consultant at Arthur Watson's Zoo in Harborplace. "Who needs a two- or three-hundred-dollar stuffed animal?"

Instead, Mr. Meren said, most sales have been in the $20 to $40 range. "You can feel what's going on," he said. "There doesn't seem to be much money moving through the system."

One 11th-hour shopper with bags in tow at Harborplace was Robert Keller, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He said he's been spreading out his shopping through the Christmas season -- "it's part of the joy for me."

"I did almost all my shopping downtown this year," he said. "Downtown merchants ought to be patronized for sticking with the core of the city."

Another city merchant, Donald Johanson of the Kelmscott Bookshop, a rare-books store, said sales have picked up in the last few weeks, even though "the season started off slowly."

Walk-in traffic at his store on West 25th Street has been thin, but sales to customers overseas, especially in Germany and Japan, have blossomed. "They have a double one on us -- strong economies and a good exchange rate," Mr. Johanson said.

One mall that seemed to have struck a chord in this recessionary season is Westview, which has repositioned itself as a discount mall after extensive renovations. T. J. Maxx, a discount department store that opened Aug. 18, has seen increased sales every week since then, according to Westview's general manager, Alan Fink. About 10 other stores are leading their chains in sales, he said.

"We are aggressively billing ourselves as the off-price mall, and 1991 appears to be the year for that," Mr. Fink said, noting that the mall's slightly smaller post-construction parking lot held 39 percent more cars in November than in the same month in 1989, before the construction started.

"They browse at Macy's and Saks, and they come here and buy," Mr. Fink said.

At Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, "traffic is off compared to what we have come to expect for the Christmas season," said the sales and marketing manager, Sonja Sanders. She said sales have been strong in practical categories, such as home furnishings, family apparel and food items. Toys, which started out slow, Ms. Sanders said, have picked up in the home stretch.

The numbers for November, compared to last year, showed stagnant sales at Mondawmin for stores open more than one year, but overall sales were up 9 percent, Ms. Sanders said.

"Overall, given that it's a recession, I'm very pleased with the figures," she said.

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