Shopping by day in the Washington area -- from Tysons Corner to Rockville Pike to College Park to downtown D.C. -- is like dealing with a particularly rambunctious child, all tantrums of traffic, shrieking congestion and shoving enough to give you fits.
But late at night while the region sleeps like an angel, it's another retail story altogether. Throughout the area, an increasing variety of stores -- ranging from record, book and toy stores to pharmacies and supermarkets -- offer late-night shoppers more than just Twinkies, Slurpees and microwaved burritos.
"During the day, people are so stressed out and you can feel the pressure just bearing down on you," said Carlos Delgado, a University of Maryland student shopping after midnight last week at a 24-hour Giant Food store in Alexandria. "In the evening, everything is just much more calm and pleasant for me."
And, it seems, for many others. Visits to a wide range of stores throughout the area over the past week revealed that D.C. Mayor Marion Barry isn't the only night owl. Uniformly, stores attracted customers right through the wee hours.
While many shop because of late-night jobs, there are other reasons to be drawn into this world of no lines, parking spaces galore, better customer service and a pace where slow and measured selection replaces the mad frenzy of snatch and grab.
The sound you don't hear around 10 p.m. at Toys R Us is of kids noisily running up and down the long aisles of the 40,000-square-foot store at Rockville's Mid-Pike Plaza. As one of the highest-volume stores on the East Coast for the discount toy retailer, the store is typically packed by day.
But right now, things are calm as pairs of parents calmly peruse the video games and talking dolls, taking advantage of the new holiday store hours that keep the place open until midnight.
J.C. and Nadine Redmond of Rockville fill their cart with games for their two small children, who are at home with a babysitter. J.C. Redmond works for the government and Nadine Redmond for a local credit bureau, and they have little time during the day or early evening to shop.
"Most stores close at 7 p.m. and only a few stay open past 9 p.m., and by that time we haven't even got the kids in bed," Nadine Redmond said. "For us, stores open late give us a chance to take some time with our buying."
According to Toys R Us night manager Bob Ogle, people shopping at night spend double and triple the average 20 minutes a harried daytime customer does, often buying more expensive gift items. Since labor costs are less at night with a minimal staff, the sales at night often carry higher profit margins.
"In the daytime, most have to contend with their children, so sometimes they just grab a slap wrap bracelet or a squish ball and get out of the store as soon as they can," Ogle said. "At night, people come in with lists, and that's a nice thing to see."
At Tower Records off Pennsylvania Avenue NW near George Washington University, there is a neon hush over the store in the late evening. Tower stores area-wide are open until midnight seven days a week, 365 days a year, so many customers treat it more like a familiar bar than a retail outlet. Though the bulk of sales occurs at lunchtime, store officials say nighttime sales are steady and often higher than morning and afternoon figures.
Tonight, a rush of fans from a Peter Allen concert at Lisner Auditorium nearby descend right after the concert to snap up albums of the music they just heard live.
"It happens every night after some concert in the area, so we always know what to have waiting in stock," said Pete Pataro, who supervises the classical and jazz sections as well as the night staff.
Pataro likes working this shift because he said it gives him the opportunity to talk with customers more easily than at other more frantic hours. "The darker it gets outside, the more mellow it is in here," Pataro said. "People at night are more open to buying new stuff."
They can even get help from the regular customers. James Penney, a postal worker, drives in from Hyattsville at least twice a week to schmooze and peruse.
"The traffic has died down and you can get in here and check out what they have, talk to other collectors at your leisure, spend a couple of hours," said Penney, holding a bunch of newly selected compact discs in his hand. "But it can get to be an expensive hobby, especially when you have all the time to see what you want."
Around 1 a.m., at Peoples Drug Store in Langley Park, the glaring fluorescent glow of the store lights up the eerily darkened strip center like a spaceship in a lonely meadow.
"I think we are pretty much a comfort to people at this hour," night manager Philip Quansah said. "A lot of people come in and say they were relieved we were here."
Quansah said that at night the store does a lot of business in prescriptions, cold medicines and other emergency items. He said food items also move well because they are priced below those at nearby convenience stores.
The store also seems to have a lot more women at night, which Quansah attributes to nervousness about going into convenience stores after dark. "They feel comfortable at the drugstore, I guess," Quansah said.
Department stores have experimented with late-night shopping with mixed results
At the Hecht Co., executives say people tend to buy more multiple and expensive items at night. After good returns from their recent midnight sale, Hecht's plans another in December for all 27 stores throughout the area. Typical store hours will also be extended to 11 p.m. starting this week for holiday shopping.
"People buy in quantities at night and that makes it profitable for us," said Peggy Disnet, Hecht's spokeswoman. "They also seem to spend a lot more time shopping."
But not always. James Wells, Woodward & Lothrop's executive vice president for merchandising, said store productivity drops off at night. "They are not very successful numbers, until shopping heats up in the 10 days before the holidays," said Wells. He said that costs of keeping a full staff on sales floors often is not made up by sales volume.
Although 2 a.m. isn't your typical time to be making beef stroganoff, Kathy Pines is waiting for the Giant Food butcher to get her the correct cut of beef for the dish she is going to cook once she gets home.
Of Giant's 152 stores, 66 are open 24 hours a day. The one on King Street in Alexandria sees a lot of night activity because of nearby apartment and condominium complexes.
Pines is a ticket agent at Continental Airlines at National Airport and after she gets off work at midnight, she and her late-working roommates are less tired than they are hungry. "Right now, I get exactly what I want in half the time," she said.
Giant officials see keeping open stores as a plus with little downside. "We stock the store all night, so it's easy to get a few cashiers in place and take care of the traffic," said David Sykes, Giant's senior vice president for finance. "Since many of our costs are taken care of by the time it gets late, opening at night just adds revenue and profit ... and it makes customers very happy to know we will serve them any time they want."
That notion of having somewhere to go at any time is an important one when thinking about late-night shopping. The Starfields of Astraea, an otherworldly bookstore at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, never closes. That, manager Bronwyn Halliday said, is a definite draw.
Indeed, at 3 a.m., the place is full of people. The dark wood shelves are softly lit, and there are comfortable chairs and tables where customers linger reading books. The favorite sale at night is fiction, and Halliday said night sales sometimes top day revenue.
To keep people in the store longer, Astraea also offers dessert and coffee at the small cafe, which has recently applied for a liquor license. A large-screen television shows the insomniac's best friend, Cable News Network.
And in the center of the store is a circular movie theater, now showing Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times." But Halliday will put on anything customers want, and late-night favorites include a Shirley MacLaine workout tape and a movie about dolphins.
"People wander in after the theater or clubs and it's like an oasis for them," Halliday said.