By noon, it was clear to Michael Wilder that the free golden tree ornaments with prizes stuffed inside were not at tracting shoppers nearly as well as that morning's three-hour-only, 10-percent-more-off sale.

Using high-tech computers, the store manager at J.C. Penney in Gaithersburg saw that after the 8 a.m. "doorbuster" sale ended at 11 a.m., volume was dropping off rather markedly. Although there were still plenty of the ornaments -- offering $5 to $500 gift certificates -- it looked as if nothing was going to work better than the old-fashioned bargain.

Promotional gimmicks are just one of the multitude of factors Wilder was juggling yesterday, the traditional kick-off to the crucial holiday retail season. Over the next month, the Gaithersburg store, the fourth-largest volume Penney's of the 1,328 stores nationwide, will make 35 percent of its $30 million in annual sales -- and 40 percent of its profit.

Yesterday, the hundreds of workers from the bowels of the stockroom to the executive offices worked from 7 a.m. to nearly midnight to beat last year's $187,000 day.

"It's the jump-start for the whole season," Wilder, a 25-year Penny's veteran, said of the day ahead of him as he strolled the two floors of the 158,000-square foot store in the Lake Forest Mall in northern Montgomery County. "It sets the whole tempo."

That tone is especially important this year at local Penny's branches, once the star performers in the chain that have been among the hardest hit by the national downturn in retail sales, according to Robert Gill, vice chairman of the Dallas-based company.

In Gaithersburg, for example, where Penny's competes with Sears Roebuck & Co., Wooodward & Lothrop and Hecht Co. stores, furniture sales are down 15 percent so far this year, housewares down 10 percent and men's apparel totally flat. On the plus side, women's merchandise is up 3 percent and children's clothes up 12 percent.

While Wilder attributes the softening to the economy, some of the loss was the result of a $4 million store renovation, part of Penney's strategic plan to alter its dowdy, downscale image.

Officials at the updated Gaithersburg store, with its marble floors, fancy fixtures and 12,000 more square feet of selling space, hope the jazzy new look will boost sales this Christmas. More brand names such as Jockey and Maidenform and Hagger now beckon the Penny's shopper. And in-store merchandising -- the displays and signs and demonstrations -- is now part of the repertoire. Early yesterday, for example, general merchandise manager Bruce Wessel was searching for another television monitor to display MTV-like videos in the teen section.

Still, by department store standards, Christmas decorations at Penny's are modest and sparse -- Wilder said they don't add much to sales.

Some regular customers are still a bit confused by the new layout. Sales associate Wilma Edwards, a three-year veteran, escorts one shopper to the escalator, another to where the "fanny packs" have been moved. But such service will be harder to offer this year. Anticipating sluggish sales, the Gaithersburg store was allowed to employ only 25 extra workers for the Christmas season this year compared with 175 last year. Another 30 are expected to be added as the season reaches its Christmas Eve crescendo.

All of which makes David Lindie's job more difficult. In a darkened room, Lindie sits behind the desk of the new camera surveillance system, watching the 19 glowing screens that cover almost every square inch of the store. To help him, two plain-clothes employees wander the floors, giving particular attention to the lingerie, jewelry and children's wear sections where items are most commonly stolen.

So far this month, the store has caught 35 shoplifters, an increase that is another sign of harder times.

Yesterday, Lindie watched carefully, because the volume of merchandise on the floors has increased tremendously this week in preparation for sales.

Inventory for the holiday season has been arriving at Vera Kugler's stockroom since August.

More than $4 million worth of merchandise has moved through the cramped back room this month -- 10 to 15 trucks a day unloading more than 1,000 boxes.

"Things have to get on the floor or else it's often too late," said Kugler, hustling past some Easter dresses in search of a hand-held massager, which she eventually found.

Equally harried was the photography studio where hordes of babies and small children waited to get their Christmas pictures taken. At $149.95 for a set of 20 sheets of various-size prints, it is a big moneymaker, said Wilder.

Leigh Betts tried every dopey expression available to get three-month-old Tommy Hughes to stop bawling and smile for his first formal portrait with his parents.

"C'mon, smile, smmmile, smmmmmile ... ," she coaxed, only getting more spit and tears.

But for a millisecond, the baby grinned happily and miraculously Betts was able to snap the picture. "You get really fast as the season goes on," she said.

Around the corner at the service desk, Betty Clouse helped customers with their credit, catalogue orders and package wrapping ($4.50 to wrap the average-size package with any of 20 different papers).

"I feel like this is the year when we better do whatever we can," said Clouse, one of eight at the service desk.

On the main retail floors, most customers realized little of all the activity that was going on to get them to make a purchase.

A generally cloudy day helped bring a steady stream of customers into the store throughout the day.

"Everything looks great here," said Jackie Greiner, who was shopping with her baby son and mother.

"I am certainly cautious, but it's not going to stop me from spending this Christmas."

Such sentiments were music to Wilder's ears, especially when estimates by late afternoon showed the store increasing sales 8 percent to 10 percent yesterday over last year.

"For the first time in months, I am feeling pretty positive about things," said Wilder, finally relaxing a little. "It feels nice."