Holiday shoppers have been flocking to Prince George's County retail centers this month despite a lackluster national economy, mall managers and retailers say.
The managements of Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville and Bowie Town Center said last week that sales have been better than expected, surpassing the predictions of local economists.
"By and large the tenants are up so far," said David Gott, manager of Bowie Town Center, which was developed by Simon Properties and opened last year. "Traffic has been good. Obviously the snow day was not fun, but the day after Thanksgiving was exceptional, as was the whole weekend."
Retailers in the region who have been hit hard by events beginning with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and, more recently, the area sniper attacks, were hoping that holiday shopping would make up for the disruptions.
"Entering the season, there were certainly tremendous fears that this might end up being one of the worst retail seasons in recent memory," said Anirban Basu, chief economist at Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute. "The early numbers suggest that has not been the case." The retailers don't give out specifics.
In other parts of the country, the picture is a little dimmer, Basu said, though not as gloomy as predicted.
Nationwide, retailers were expecting horrible numbers, but November's figures proved to be the highest levels in three months. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, retail sales rose 0.5 percent, surpassing the 0.2 percent increase analysts were expecting for November.
In Maryland, the state retailers association was expecting a sluggish 2 percent sales increase, worse than last year's holiday-shopping season . Tom Saquella, president of the association, said he thinks his members are beating those numbers. But they are still worried about the mixed economy and political climate.
"A lot have expressed concern about all the talk about war with Iraq, and that is distracting people," Saquella said.
In addition, the strike held by dock workers on the West Coast several weeks ago had a lot of merchants concerned that goods would not make it to their shops in time for Christmas, he said.
Those problems as well as Thanksgiving falling late this year prompted local stores to launch heavy promotions with merchandise discounted 50 percent and 60 percent, Saquella said. The Maryland Retailers Association also launched a "Shop Maryland" television advertising campaign to encourage Marylanders to spend their money close to home.
"You're seeing after-Christmas sales before Christmas," Saquella said. "They [retailers] needed to really prime the pump. There are some great bargains." Bruce Robertson, community relations manager at the Barnes & Noble store in Bowie, said advertising campaigns and holiday programs, including Hanukah and Kwanzaa celebrations, have worked. Sales are hitting their targets.
"Weather and the economy notwithstanding, we're doing really well," Robertson said. "This is pretty much what we expected."
At Prince George's Plaza, Mattel's Barbie Rapunzel and Fisher-Price's Chicken Dance Elmo are flying off the shelves, mall manager Henry Watford said. Most of the stores have shown sales increases of between 10 percent and 25 percent, he said.
"Typically, our sales volume increases a lot the last week or two before Christmas," Watford said. "It appears this year that consumers have decided to shop earlier."
Across the county, at Bowie Town Center, Gott said that housewares and electronics have been the big hits. Lines at the recently opened Best Buy have been out the door, Gott said.
"We continue to be the right place at the right time," he said.
Kathy Alexander checks the map of Bowie Town Center. Mall manager David Gott said that housewares and electronics are selling especially well.