On Ellicott City's Main Street, Susan Starr hopes for strong sales during the next month for her sterling silver, Limoges and pottery.

So far this year, sales at her four-year-old store are down 10 percent from 2001, and if history repeats itself, she can only hope for a slight increase as Christmas and Hanukah approach. Last year, sales at Starry Nights jumped 22 percent over the level in 2000. But during the last six weeks of the year, the increase was less than 2 percent, reflecting the holiday slump.

"We're hoping that it will be at least as good as last year," said Starr, 52, co-owner of the store. "I would love to end up with more, but I'll keep my hopes modest because I realize it's been a tough year for everybody. It's been a year of ups and downs."

Howard County merchants are cautiously optimistic about the holiday shopping season. Sales have been slower since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and more recently, the sniper attacks this fall in the Washington region kept many shoppers indoors.

Anirban Basu, chief economist at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute, said sales this holiday season are likely to be lackluster. He estimated that holiday sales could grow 2 percent to 4 percent over last year. Last year's holiday sales were better than expected, and this year could be the same, although not as high as retailers may like. Stores will likely have to discount prices to boost sales, he said.

"This season is not going to be very good. It's not going to be abysmal," Basu said. "This is nothing to write Santa about. Even though sales totals may not be too bad, profitability still looks fairly negative."

In Howard, tax revenue from retail sales in October reflects the slowdown in consumer spending, said Donald L. Stitely Jr., a county budget analyst. Tax revenue from furniture and appliances rose 13.1 percent, or $149,407, over October 2001, while revenue from general merchandise -- including sporting goods, jewelry and leather products -- dropped 2.3 percent, or $41,522.

Tom Saquella, president of the Annapolis-based Maryland Retailers Association, said shoppers will find plenty of bargains during the shortened holiday season, with Thanksgiving and Christmas only four weeks apart. The economy's continued weakness and the threat of war in Iraq have dampened consumer confidence. He forecast a 2 percent increase in holiday sales this year over 2001, based on a survey of his association's members.

Consumers expect to increase their holiday spending 2.6 percent, to an average of $649, but only 7.9 percent plan to spend more than they did last year, according to the National Retail Federation's Holiday Consumer Survey.

The season's best-selling products are expected to include home furnishings and leisure items, such as books, CDs and sporting goods. Discounters and independently owned stores are expected to fare better than other retailers, Saquella said.

"Independent retailers deal in higher-end merchandise and niche merchandise," he said. "Their customer base tends to be less impacted by major economic swings. They can be more optimistic than your national chains."

At Historic Savage Mill, sales among the center's 60 businesses, including several new stores, are up 5 percent to 10 percent, but some merchants, such as those selling furniture and art, are performing better than others, said Steven H. Adler, managing partner.

"Some of our high-end antiques [sales] have slowed as of recently," Adler said. "That might relate a little bit to the overall economy and the stock market."

Adler said that his men's specialty apparel chain, Steven H. Adler Big & Tall, which has five locations in the region, had a sales drop of nearly 15 percent last year but that sales have rebounded this year.

"Apparel, in general, does seem to run in cycles. This appears to be an up cycle," he said.

Inside Savage Mill, Linda Chriest, office manager for Gordon's Booksellers, a discount chain that has three other locations in Maryland, said business and travel books are selling more slowly than art books, coffee-table books, religious materials and other items.

"We're hoping that this year will bring some better sales," Chriest said. "Because last year was overshadowed by 9/11, people were hesitant to go out to too many areas. I'm sure that affected business overall for everybody."

Some merchants had rosier outlooks for the season. Karen M. Geary, general manager of the Mall in Columbia, said the mall has experienced a double-digit increase in overall sales and expects the trend to continue through the holidays. Several new stores have opened in the last few months, including Point A, an upscale luggage store, children's haircutter Cartoon Cuts, Helzberg Diamonds and teen clothier Wet Seal.

The mall has had an increase in shoppers in the weeks before Hanukah, which begins tomorrow. "The last two weekends have been very busy," she said.

Back on Ellicott City's Main Street, Rick Schwedes, manager of the family-owned Cottage Antiques, wished he could say the same. The shop's sales are down at least 60 percent, and revenue on weekends has dropped to $500 a day, down from $2,000 to $3,000.

But he still has high hopes for the holidays. The store sent out invitations to shoppers for Ellicott City's Candlelight on Main Street, which was to be held last Friday night.

"Traffic has picked up already for the holiday season," Schwedes said. "We'll bounce back. We always do."

Holiday shoppers crowd Main Street Baskets & Gifts in Ellicott City last year. Merchants are hoping for the best this year.Anita Ordakowski watches daughter Dyan confer with Santa last year.