Washington area shoppers took to the stores en masse yesterday with cash, credit cards and some trepidation -- recession as much on their minds as Christmas baubles.
The result for some merchants on what is traditionally the opening of the busiest retail season of the year was a lot of looking, but not much ringing of the cash register.
Still, crowds mobbed Georgetown Park's glass-and-steel Victorian playpen for shoppers, made parking an impossible dream at White Flint and browsed in the balmy weather in the downtown shopping district.
Outside Garfinckel's, Oscar T. Turner III, a 29-year-old printer employed by the federal government, and his wife, Earlene, balanced bundles of bags and cartons.
"I've been in debt all my life," he said with a shrug. "My wife and I were figuring last night that if something doesn't happen to improve our situation we could lose the house, the car . . . ."
"My mind," Earlene Turner interrupted.
"We figured why not go all out," Turner said, smiling uneasily and readjusting his bundles. "This could be the last one before they take our credit cards."
Across town in Georgetown Park, Robert and Norretta Taylor, stepping out of La Vogue in their matched ranch mink jackets, said it was going to be a bit leaner Christmas for them, too.
"We're finding it's difficult to get by, just like everyone else," said Norretta Taylor, who came from her Richmond home to Washington for the weekend to do some Christmas shopping. "There are a lot of things I just don't buy."
At Hyattsville's Capital Plaza shopping center, Joann Bailey picked out Christmas potholders, towels and glasses at Kresge's while her husband talked about the possibility of losing his job as a Prince George's County health inspector.
"I'm more scared than ever," said James Bailey. "I've been there 17 years, but it doesn't look hopeful. I really don't know what's going to happen."
Neither, it seems, do the merchants.
"We're nervous only because of what we've been reading and hearing," said Martin Pfeifer, vice president for finance of W. Bell & Co. "Our sales are not as strong as they could be, but they're not weak. This first day after Thanksgiving is not enough to tell."
In some stores, business was just as it should be on the opening day of the Christmas shopping season.
F.A.O. Schwartz, the fancy Fifth Avenue toy emporium that now has five outposts in the Washington area, had to hire a security guard at its Georgetown Park store to keep people out. Otherwise, the heavy crowds would have caused fire and safety violations, according to the store manager.
Inside the store, consumers were buying up bundles. The plush white Snoopy, the size of a grown man, that was reclining on top of a red-and-white display house was snapped up by a foreign diplomat for $300 and shipped off to Argentina. And the six-room Victorian dollhouse ($199.95 assembled) was purchased by a grandmother. But then, according to one salesclerk, grandparents are the greatest boon to toy store economy ever invented.
In other places, the browsers seemed to outnumber the buyers.
"There's definitely a lot of traffic," said Janet Hume, manager of White Flint's Paraphernalia, as she watched shoppers saunter past some silk blouses and then leave the store. "People are looking for markdowns."
A.L. Gelin, owner of Pappagallo's at White Flint, said one could gauge the healthiness of business by comparing the bag-toting shoppers with the large number of browsers with empty hands.
"People are believing what they're reading in the papers: there's a recession," Gelin lamented.
But around the mall, there were other assessments. "Our cash register has been singing," said Barbara Weaverling, manager of the Houston Hat and Boot Co., which specializes in the leather and silver cowboy look.
Retail sales grew sluggish last October and merchants were anxiously awaiting the opening of the Christmas season, when they generally chalk up approximately 40 percent of their earnings. Stores yesterday were offering many deep discounts and bargains to attract customers.
But it was not clear yet whether that strategy would persuade shoppers to plunk down their money.
At Tysons Corner, where retailers reported the same mixed bag of business as elsewhere, Monte's gift shop was awash with customers. They weren't, however, buying the higher priced items, such as a $30 picnic basket or $15 vase, according to store manager Lynda Rockwell.
"Mugs are what I'm selling now," Rockwell said. "I think everybody's getting a coffee mug for Christmas."
And back on F Street downtown, retired seamstress Willa Walker creaked along. "I really can't afford nothing," she said with a flustered look. "They got a name for what I'm doing. It's called 'window shopping.' "