The "Recession Christmas" gloomily predicted by worried Washington area merchants has turned into a holiday bonanza.
Major area department stores, including J.C. Penney Co. and Woodward & Lothrop Inc., have reported record sales during the last five days, caused, in part, by an unusally high number of pre-Christmas price mark-downs and a break in the wintry weather.
The hordes of shoppers have brought smiles to the lips of store managers, many of whom had expressed concern about the Scrooge-like pace of sales at the start of the holiday shopping season.
While large department stores and merchants in suburban shopping malls are reporting brisk sales, however, smaller shops often have not been as lucky.
While some are doing well, other mom-and-pop operations -- like Edythe Smith's blouse shop in Silver Spring -- are having a tough time clearing shelves of overstocked goods.
"We've gotten a lot of lookers, but not many buyers," explained Smith, who described this Christmas as the worst sales period in the last five years for her discount clothing store. "This sure doesn't feel like Christmas," she said.
Buying by consumers also varies. "Christmas is Christmas," explained Nancy Oleson of Warrenton, who stopped shopping at Tysons Corner mall long enough one afternoon this week to slip her sore feet into a different pair of shoes. "I got 15 grandchildren expecting presents and I'm not going to disappoint them."
Other shoppers said they have been cutting back -- buying fewer and more practical gifts this year, such as clothing, and often using cash rather than credit.
"My husband works for the federal government and we weren't sure he would even have a job with all the RIFs reductions in force going on," said Maureen O'Brien, of Reston, while waiting at Tysons Corner mall for her 4-year-old son Christian to finish giving his wish list to Santa Claus. "I'm spending considerably less this Christmas. I'm spending less and shopping late."
And in Landover Mall in Prince George's County, Donald and Della Owens expressed what seemed to be a common feeling among shoppers when they said they were thinking twice before buying anything. "We are looking at things pretty close and thinking about whether we need them," said Della, as her two sons, Jamar, 2, and Kibwe, 4, stared at the flashing decorations that lined the mall.
Traditionally, the Washington area has been insulated from industry shut-downs and unemployment, explained Leonard Kolodny, retail bureau manager for the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Then came the RIFs, followed last month by the threat of wide-scale furloughs for federal employes. "People pushed the panic button," said Kolodny. "They stopped spending."
That upset merchants, he says. Many Washington area companies collect as much as 40 percent of their annual earnings from Christmas sales. To make matters worse, the weather turned bad.
"That combination of things made for some gloomy predictions," Kolodny said. It also caused merchants to mark down prices before Christmas rather than waiting until the day after. The gloom began to disappear Saturday as shoppers flooded stores.
"Last Saturday was the biggest sales day in the history of the company," said Edwin K. Hoffman, chairman of Woodies, which is considered a bellwether here. "It was a multimillion dollar sales day -- not just several million -- I mean multimillion."
William D. Striegl, district manager for J.C. Penney Co. in the Washington and Baltimore area, reported similar record weekend sales. "It was a great combination of Christmas business, plus people buying winter clothing. A lot of people had been putting off buying winter clothes and when the snow hit, they needed coats, gloves, et cetera. The bad weather helped us in that regard."
So did the pre-Christmas mark-downs, Striegl said. "I can't remember when we had such big markdowns before Christmas in apparel goods. They helped increase traffic at the stores. Also, people were insecure about how effective sales would be after the first of the year because of the economy."
Traditionally, merchants hope increase their Christmas sales by 3 to 7 percent each year. A spot check of several large stores showed most were making up to 10 percent higher sales than last year. But the markdowns could take a toll because price-cutting usually means smaller profits.
Merchants said customers seemed to be more careful about what they bought. "Customers are buying smaller items for gifts this year, accessories rather than suits," explained Jon Lee, owner of Esquire Clothiers in Silver Spring.
Lee said he first began to notice the penny-pinching before Christmas when customers began asking him to alter expensive suits rather than sell them new ones. During an average week, his six tailors reduce the size of lapels on an average of 100 suits, making them more fashionable.
At S.D. Wine and Cheese, also in Silver Spring, assistant manager Douglas Wathingira said his customers are buying cheaper domestic wines this year, rather than more expensive French and German brands.
Despite economic problems, the hottest selling gifts this Christmas, merchants agreed, are electronic video games.
"These Atari games were hot last year and they are even hotter this year," said Striegl.
Video games were also at the top of lists being given to Santa Claus at Tysons Corner.
"This year everyone wants video games or anything with the Dukes of Hazard on it," the Santa said. "But I've also got more than the usual number of requests for snakes."