Frank Kardos doesn't usually buy presents just a few days before Christmas, but this year he missed his schedule. He caught a downtown bus to Harborplace this week to fill 11th-hour gift-list gaps.
"I try to finish way before this, usually around Thanksgiving," said the Baltimore resident. "But I just had a few last-minute things, and this is it."
Mr. Kardos has plenty of company, some merchants are reporting.
"Everything seems to be condensed into the last few weeks," said Zed Smith, general manager of Westview Mall in Catonsville. "People are holding onto their dollars just a little bit longer this year. They're waiting until the last minute."
Retailers reported continued strong holiday sales this week, and several said they expected a particularly robust surge today.
The last Saturday before Christmas is usually a hectic one. The fact that it's Christmas Eve as well this year could generate even more traffic, merchants said.
In a national survey by business consultancy Arthur Andersen LLP, two-thirds of 750 consumers interviewed last weekend said they still had Christmas shopping to do. A third said they hadn't begun.
That's more procrastinators than normal, said Jay Scansaroli, the partner in charge of Andersen's retail consulting business.
"Maybe it's a sign that people are waiting for value and waiting for markdowns," Mr. Scansaroli said. "I think retailers are going to finish with a strong weekend."
If shoppers have been waiting for markdowns, they've been amply rewarded. Maryland newspaper and TV operators have reported strong ad revenue this year, and many of those spots have featured discounts of 50 percent and more on everything from jewelry to topcoats.
The promotions will keep profit margins lower than they otherwise would have been.
Store managers and mall operators continue to expect average holiday sales increases this year of between 4 percent and 6 percent or more, which is considered a healthy rise.
"I feel very comfortable that we're talking at least a 6 to 8 percent increase," said Karen Pospisil, marketing manager for White Marsh Mall.
But some stores experienced a mid-December slump, reporting that recent weeks didn't match a flurry of buying that came in the first 10 days after Thanksgiving.
"There's been some softening the last couple of weeks," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association. "We projected a 5 percent increase. It's going to take a pretty strong final week to reach that."
One possible reason: Hanukkah came early this year, starting Nov. 27, the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
Some items haven't stopped moving, however. Jewelry, computers and toys continue to sell briskly, store operators said.
"We're significantly ahead of plan -- significantly," said Jerry Greenberg, general manager of the CompUSA computer store in Towson. "It's going great."
Apparel sales aren't booming, but they're still much healthier than last year, merchants said. The cold weather of recent weeks helped spur checkouts of coats, boots and gloves.
Mr. Saquella is skeptical that a blockbuster Saturday will make up for the mid-December blahs that some retailers saw. Many stores will close at 6 or 7 p.m. today, silencing the cash registers early, he noted. And the predicted rain for the area wouldn't help.
"It's going to be interesting to see how Saturday plays out," Mr. Saquella said.
But others aren't worried.
"No matter what it is, everybody figures out at the last minute what they want," said Steven Baum, president of Greetings & Readings, a large book-and-card store in Towson. "So far, knock on wood, it's been a great season."