Area retailers say that for the most part they had a pretty good Christmas, but they are not willing yet to predict a turnaround in the economy.
Merchants in Chatham Mall, along Main Street in Ellicott City, and at The Mall in Columbia say sales were above last year's -- significantly above, in some cases.
Mike Gaeta, manager at the Chatham Mall K mart, said his sales for the year were up about 5 percent over last year's and about 20 percent over last December's.
"We had a good last week, that's for sure," he said. "Returns (of purchases) are a bit lighter, but that may be because there were some heavy refunds prior to Christmas."
He said returns also might have dropped because many people bought clothing, small appliances and sporting goods -- "everyday items and not the kinds of things that might go wrong."
"A lot of people seemed tobe waiting till the very end, waiting for deals, buying only what they had to buy," Gaeta said.
Charge cards were used more this year,especially on the day after Thanksgiving, when 40 percent of the Chatham K mart's sales were credit purchases, Gaeta said.
Chatham Mall manager Joan Post said that overall, stores in the mall did "quite well," which she attributes to bargain hunters in discount stores like K mart and Caldor. Jo-Ann Fabrics had good sales, Post believes, because more people are sewing this year.
Beverly Gregory, who worksin the Sheppard Art Gallery on Main Street in Ellicott City, said her shop had "one of the best Christmas seasons ever."
"Many people are cleaning out their attics," Gregory said. "They are traveling less and rediscovering family traditions."
She said much of her business this Christmas has been the framing of old family photographs andmementos. Among the mementos she was asked to preserve and frame were a child's christening dress and the insignia-bearing sides of WorldWar II airplanes.
Sheila Perkins, owner of Papa's Garden on Main Street, said she was "really pleased" with Christmas sales and the growth of her business this year.
Customers "showed a lot of wonderful holiday spirit," said Perkins, who is involved in community service. Her Christmas sales raised $1,500 for the House of Ruth, she said.
A few doors away at Ellicott's Country Store, owner Enalee E. Bounds said her 30-year-old establishment was "very well mobbed till 5 p.m. Christmas Eve."
Bounds said she won't know how well she fared financially, however, until she computes sales at the end of the month. She said her longevity in Ellicott City and the fact that her store offers something for the whole family accounted for the large turnout.
Not everyone fared as well.
Anthony Amorosi at Jacqueline'sFine Art in Ellicott City said "business has been basically slow."
"We recently sold a chest of drawers and a couple of small items," he said, "but people are just not buying anything. It's hard trying to determine what people will buy during a recession."
Sales were mixed at The Mall in Columbia, said William R. Nunn, vice president and general manager of Columbia Mall Inc. "Some (retailers) did extremely well, some poorly and some about the same as last year. Generallyspeaking, people spent less money."
The number of people coming to the mall in the last two weeks "was at least as great as last year," Nunn said, although "people waited even longer this year" before making purchases.
"People are shifting their spending habits," he said.
Judging from preliminary figures, Nunn said he feels good about the mall's performance in general, especially in light of a tight market in the Baltimore-Washington area.
Peggy Disney, a spokeswoman for the Hecht Co., one of the mall's three anchor stores, expressedsimilar views. Overall, she said, the company's volume was "close toprojections and slightly ahead of last year's" volume. She said the company was "pleased in particular with sales in the Baltimore region."
Roy Templet, Eastern region general manager for Sears, said theColumbia store experienced the same pattern as other Sears stores nationally and within the region -- "very strong after Thanksgiving, soft the next two weeks and terrific (the) last week."
Despite the Christmas surge, sales were still not up to the company's expectations, Templet said.
"We expected a late shopping pattern. But we had more on Monday before Christmas than the day after Thanksgiving. That is not our normal experience."
A spokesman for Woodward & Lothrop,the third anchor store in the mall, did not return phone calls.