She is white, alone, about 60. She walks crisply toward the front door of the Hecht Co. store at Landover Mall. She tells me she lives in Bowie and is there to shop for a blanket for her granddaughter.
I ask if she comes to Landover Mall often. "Whenever I need something," she says, a bit vaguely. I ask if she has ever bought anything in the Hecht store that she didn't intend to buy when she arrived. "Almost never," she says.
Does she ever just shop for the sheer fun of shopping? "Yes, I do," the woman said. But she usually does that at outlet malls on the road or when she's visiting her sister in Florida.
"This mall is the corner drugstore for me," she said. "I come because I need something, one something. I don't wander around."
An hour earlier, in the food court of Montgomery Mall, I had asked the same questions of Rebecca Way and Dru Smith. They were in their late twenties, both white, both with infants in strollers. They had met at a new mothers' class and had agreed to spend a Monday morning shopping together.
Neither woman needed anything, they both said. "We just want to look at Eddie Bauer and National Geographic," Rebecca said.
How much did they expect to buy? Dru said her list included some baby clothes and some CDs. "But if I buy a little more, I wouldn't be surprised," she said. "And don't think I'm made of money. Not with a new baby. It's just fun to shop, to be surprised, maybe."
Three women approached at random on a Monday morning may prove very little, or nothing at all. But they suggest that racism is not the single reason Prince George's County doesn't have a major upscale retail store and Montgomery County does. In fact, racism may not be the reason at all.
History and geography may be better reasons. And a hard-eyed look at average family income may matter most.
For the past 10 years, Prince George's County has seen a massive influx of well-to-do black families. But the county still does not have a large high-end retail "anchor" store. Even new malls under construction in Prince George's will not contain such stores.
Black residents of Prince George's grouse regularly about this apparent sign of racism. Since it was founded in 1996, an organization called the Shop Where You Live Coalition has urged a boycott of high-end stores that won't move to Prince George's or open a branch there. Black politicians in Prince George's regularly denounce such stores as Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor for ducking the county.
But Montgomery, Tysons Corner and Pentagon City have not gotten snappy stores because their clients have white skin, shopping center executives say. They have gotten the best stores because of where they are located.
Hal Vasvari, president of Combined Properties, said Montgomery and Fairfax counties have an advantage today because regional malls went up there first. "Infrastructure is already there," Vasvari said. "The existing sales are where the retail goes."
Location is another major factor, developers say. If you start at the White House and go due east for about 21 miles, you'll come to the intersection where Bowie New Town Center is being built (without a high-end anchor store). But if you go 21 miles north, northwest or southwest from the White House, you will long since have passed Tysons Corner, Montgomery Mall and Pentagon City.
Vasvari pointed out that even today, density in eastern Prince George's (where most upscale black families live) is far below density in most of Montgomery. "If housing ownership is only 30,000 people in a five-mile area [about one-fifth of Montgomery's density], I don't care what the race is," he said.
Employment patterns can play a big part, too. Although Prince George's has several major employers (the University of Maryland, Goddard Space Flight Center), Montgomery contains the massive Department of Health and Human Services complex in Rockville, Marriott and IBM. Another important measure: More people commute from Prince George's to jobs in Montgomery than the other way around.
But developers say the biggest strike against Prince George's may be the way in which average household income is arrived at.
"You have many, many well-off black families in Prince George's, no question," said one developer. "But you also have many, many not-so-well-off families of every race. In Montgomery, you have a much deeper base of comfortable, high-spending customers.
"It isn't racism to say you won't bring a big retailer to Prince George's. It's a reflection that Prince George's has relatively few very wealthy people and not a whole lot of strength anywhere else on the economic ladder."
Vasvari thinks that the problem will begin to become a non-problem in three to five years. It can't happen sooner because the region is "so overbuilt in other areas." Still, "there's the right dynamics for things to happen," he said. The county leadership is "doing everything right."
Yet the shopping patterns of the women I interviewed may swing more weight than anything else.
"Malls are impulse palaces," said one developer. "If a woman buys only one blanket, that's not a way for a shopping mall to thrive. It's about attitude, about shopping as a sport. If people from Prince George's go elsewhere to make impulse purchases, that's a lot more significant than race."