Riding holiday roller coaster

Holiday shopping season gets under way amid expectations of besting a lousy year

Christmas Count Down

December 14, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Stephanie Bayer emerged from an aisle of the KB Toys store at Marley Station mall one night last week with toys stacked nearly to her chin.

She's going all out for Christmas this year, she said, and no amount of money was too much to spend on her only child.

"I only have one kid, so I do all that I can," Bayer, a packaging worker, said as she lugged around a Connect Four board game, a basketball, a G.I. Joe action figure and other toys. And she had yet to buy the PlayStation 2 video game he's been begging for.

Retailers are hoping for more Stephanie Bayers, especially after a tough economic year and a dismal holiday retail season a year ago.

There are signs this year will be better. The Commerce Department reported Thursday that retail sales rose 0.9 percent in November, after a flat October and a 0.3 percent drop in September. Also upbeat was "Black Friday," the heavy shopping day after Thanksgiving so named because it puts many stores' financial results in the "black."

But a new University of Michigan study that tracks consumer sentiments indicated they soured in mid-December. And early-season sales figures by various retailers nationally - and a daily visit to stores in the region last week - showed that not every retailer is thriving as the holiday shopping season nears its midpoint.

On Wednesday morning, for instance, a line of families waited for the opening of the Picture Place photo studio at White Marsh Mall to get holiday portraits shot. But at the Macy's department store nearby, the aisles were sparsely filled an hour after the store opened for a big one-day sale.

Britt Beemer, president of America's Research Group, a marketing firm in Charleston, S.C., predicts a 4.5 percent increase in sales for the entire season, but warns that retailers' reluctance to get caught up in heavy discounting like last year could discourage bargain-hunters from buying. Perhaps a sign of how fragile the prospects are, Beemer said this is only the second December in his 24 years in covering retail in which he may need to adjust his forecast if sales activity doesn't pick up soon.

So far, high-end specialty shops and discount chains appear to be doing well, while department stores and those in the middle are struggling. The recently announced closing of FAO Schwarz's landmark store in New York a week into the season was taken as a sign of a tight market, even though the toy seller had struggled for years. Others say it's too early to tell.

"What I expect is a holiday period that will come at the end as it always does," said Howard Davidowitz, president of retail consulting firm Davidowitz & Associates in New York.

December 7 - The Mall in Columbia, Columbia

The crowd at The Mall in Columbia last Sunday portended a good season. Many people who were pent up in their homes during the snowstorm the day before seemed to be making up for the lost shopping day.

Parking was difficult to find. Stores were packed, from the Limited Inc., which offered 40 percent reductions on much of its women's clothing, to J.C. Penney, which also featured sale Items. Dressed in Christmas sweaters and turtlenecks, consumers swarmed a kiosk called Ornaments & More to get trinkets engraved with names and messages.

At the Bun Penny Market & Cafe, shoppers were lured in by samples of chocolate. They bought candy wrapped in Christmas paper and shaped like little toy soldiers. The employees were busy behind the counter assembling gift baskets with coffee, candy and specialty foods. Owner and manager Jeff P. Ditter gave the employees ice cream treats to reward their hard work.

"We expect to have a good year," he said.

December 8 - Marley Station Mall, Glen Burnie

Monday nights aren't typically the best for a mall, but last week traffic was heavier than usual that evening as people tried to get an early start on their shopping.

At Ritz Camera, Joy Engle from Arbutus perched at a digital processing machine making prints she planned to frame and give as gifts. Engle, an administrative assistant, recently had surgery and wasn't up to the crowds, she said, so she figured last Monday night was a good time to shop.

Dean Stedding, the store manager, said the popularity of digital cameras has already meant a boost in sales for the store. The cameras, which record images without film, are supposed to be some of this season's best-selling items overall, analysts have said. One reason: they're half the price they were three years ago.

District manager Fred Windholz said customers are being more cautious about their spending, but are making wiser choices.

"I think people are thinking a lot more about what they're buying," he said.

KB Toys was also bustling for a Monday night.

Paula Burkhart from Gambrills in Anne Arundel County was buying for her five grandchildren. She planned to spend $100 on each. Already, she had picked out a CareBear doll for a granddaughter.

"This," she explained, "is for a 3-year-old that wants everything."

December 8 - Eastpoint Mall, Dundalk

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