As shopping ends, smiles abound Some stores suffer, but many see gains

December 25, 1992|By David Conn | David Conn,Staff Writer

On the last shopping day before Christmas, Baltimore-area retailers were in a truly Dickensian mood. Amid great expectations and Christmas carols galore, it was the best of times and the worst of times.

Jonathan B. Klose -- manager of the Franklin Mint store in the Owings Mills mall -- was in a good mood. A very good mood.

Sales this year have been "awesome," he said. For instance, he sold four $500 limited-edition Scrabble sets -- these are nice Scrabble sets, by the way -- all in one day last week. He sold another yesterday, as well as a $500 Monopoly game and a $1,500 Oriental chess set.

"I've made my month," he said, which means that the store already has exceeded December 1991 sales. In fact, Mr. Klose said, he is 22 percent ahead of last year.

"I love it -- I live for this stuff," he said. "My boss tells me to get a life."

At the same time, the mall was unusually quiet for a Christmas Eve -- though several merchants noted that the Owings Mills area has a large Jewish population, and shopping for Hanukkah is over.

And there were "Going out of business" signs at several chains. Britches Great Outdoors for Women was closing down, a saleswoman said; same story at Georgiou, a women's clothing store downstairs, although a clerk said the company is negotiating to open a store at Towson Town Center.

The shelves were half-empty at the Early Learning Centre, a British-owned chain with about two dozen U.S. outlets, all of which are shutting down. Marlene Mruck, an Owings Mills resident, bemoaned the loss of what she said is one of the only children's stores offering a violence-free selection of toys.

"I'm really sorry to see this," she said, as she loaded up with discounted books and toys. They were just a few miscellaneous last-minute items, Ms. Mruck noted. She was at the mall only to accompany her husband, "who's doing his main Christmas shopping," she said -- same story every year.

TeleCheck, a Houston company that provides check-clearing services, said this week that U.S. purchases by check were slightly less this year than last year for the period from Thanksgiving through Saturday. In the Baltimore area, check purchases were down 2.6 percent,according to TeleCheck.

Some retailers at Owings Mills said they were enthusiastic about sales activity in the last week but wondered whether the 11th-hour rush of buying would outweigh what many saw as a flat retail season.

"It's better this week than last year," said Dawn Ginther, manager of the Attivo clothing store, a division of Joppa-based Merry-Go-Round Enterprises. "But it's not going to make up for the rest of the season." A saleswoman said the same at the Merry-Go-Round location next door.

At elegant Saks Fifth Avenue, there was a sign of the times: a poster urging consumers to "Think Small," and photos of several diminutive items that easily could be stuffed in a stocking.

Still, consumer spending nationwide in November rose 0.5 percent, after inflation, compared with spending in November 1991, the Commerce Department reported Wednesday. Spending had risen 1 percent the month before.

"We think it's going to be a good season," said Thomas Saquella, director of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association. "We forecast a 5 percent increase over last year, and we should have no problem meeting or exceeding that."

If the crowds later in the day at Security Square Mall and at downtown Baltimore's Gallery at Harborplace were any indication, Mr. Saquella may be right.

In the Gallery, a Brooks Brothers salesman said he was doing better than ever, as he prepared to ship a suit to a customer in Puerto Rico. The consumer electronics stores at both malls were hopping. And, unlike earlier this season, almost no one left without a shopping bag in his or her hand.

As of last weekend, statewide sales were even with last year's at this time, Mr. Saquella said, and "almost everything after last weekend is gravy."

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