When the going gets tough the tough go shopping -- or they ask Joyce Baker to do it for them.
Ms. Baker, a Pikesville resident, daily combs the racks and shelves of Owings Mills mall's 150 outlets -- from three huge department stores to the everything's-a-buck shop -- to fulfill and anticipate her customers' desires.
When a woman who works at a Columbia retirement center couldn't break away to Christmas shop for out-of-town relatives, she faxed a list of 18 names and a budget on a Monday.
"I put it all together so when she came in on Saturday everything was packed and shipped in an hour and a half," Ms. Baker said.
Personal shoppers are not new. Individual stores, including some at Owings Mills mall, have them. Ms. Baker is unique as the only mall-wide personal shopper in the ranks of the Rouse Co., which operates the mall and many other shopping centers.
Her only reward from customers is an occasional thank-you note. The service is free. As head of customer service, Ms. Baker works for the mall.
"It's another level of customer service," said marketing manager Kay Standon.
It is not a "champagne and limousine" service, said Ms. Baker, 46. Anyone can seek her services, whether they plan to spend $100 or $1,000.
"There's no catch, and everyone is treated exactly the same," she said.
Although Christmas shopping will continue to dominate Ms. Baker's workdays for the next week, her year-round schedule frequently goes beyond simply selecting a gift for someone to getting involved, such as helping to forestall a family crisis.
Last spring a frustrated mother of a 13-year-old girl came to her, ++ unable to find a junior prom dress that would satisfy her daughter's demands while meeting her husband's objections.
The girl, "a sophisticated 13-year-old mature beyond her years," wanted a more revealing gown than her father thought proper, Ms. Baker said.
Ms. Baker checked mall shops and found some gowns she thought might serve. The mother left her with the teen-ager at the store "and the first dress she tried on, she bought." The floral pattern, off-the-shoulder gown, "was what a sophisticated 13-year-old girl should wear," she said.
"I saved a war between mother and daughter in that case," Ms. Baker said.
The family sent her thank-you notes "and a photograph that showed how beautiful she looked all dressed up," Ms. Baker said.
"You don't need me for slippers and a robe. You need me for the unique gift, the gift that makes a statement," she said.
In another instance, a woman buying Christmas gifts said her mother was having severe personal problems and she wanted to buy her a special present.
"I picked out a book, 'Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,' and I had a card framed that said, 'You will always been Number One to Yourself. Look in the mirror.' Then I found an antique mirror and a note that said, 'Every time you look at the card, look in the mirror.'
Ms. Baker said she frequently delivers people's purchases herself, to addresses within 25 miles of Owings Mills. Sometimes she visits customer's homes to see how she can help them add things to enhance their wardrobes.
Last summer a blind woman's family was to give the woman an 85th birthday party. The woman wanted a new dress.
"I brought her to the mall, and the sales associates were wonderful. She bought two dresses and then she said, 'You were my eyes,' " Ms. Baker said.
Ms. Baker came to Owings Mills nearly three years ago.
She had spent many years in retail sales and owned a specialty shop, when the Rouse Co. took over its own customer-service center. It offered not only shopping information and complimentary gift wrapping, but strollers for children and wheelchairs for the disabled.
The number of shopping inquiries rose dramatically -- 250 in the first four months after her arrival -- and Ms. Baker's role expanded from a concierge service.
In August 1992, she was tapped to handle mall-wide personal-shopping services.
She spends most Mondays "walking the mall," going in and out of stores, talking with salespeople, buyers and managers, checking what's in stock, what sales are coming up, what might make an unusual gift and generally studying the marketplace.
"She's become known as The Mayor of the Mall," Ms. Standon said.
"My bottom line is to get you in and get you out as quickly as possible," Ms. Baker said. "I make it very easy."
Recently, an emergency forced her to live up to her "bottom line." In a quarter of an hour, Ms. Baker re-outfitted a woman so she could keep an important business appointment and changed the customer's fashion image at the same time.
The woman forgot to note the meeting in her calendar and wore more casual clothes to work, Ms. Baker said. "She called me and said she had to have a new outfit in 20 minutes."
Ms. Baker did a quick scout and when the woman arrived, even before the mall opened, new clothes were ready.