Liz Curtis went Christmas shopping yesterday, pulling into the mammoth parking lot at Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg at 8 a.m. and hitting the stores that might have special appeal to her grandchildren.
"I'm disgusted with how much everything costs. But it's not stopping me from buying," the Olney secretary said, as she browsed through clothing racks on what is considered the first day of the Christmas shopping season. "It's the first time in 20 years that I've gone shopping the day after Thanksgiving -- it's too crowded. But I'm working now and I don't have much time to shop."
By 2 p.m. yesterday, Lakeforest Mall had wall-to-wall shoppers, and most merchants were grinning from ear to ear. Forget the talk of negative psychological fallout from last month's precipitous stock market decline. According to these Gaithersburg retailers, at least, people were falling all over themselves to buy merchandise, especially if it was on sale.
"We're real pleased with the crowds," said Lakeforest marketing director Charmaine Crismond, surveying the crowd of children and parents surging onto the pink, blue and gold Santa Claus stand in the center court of the mall's 160 stores.
Retailers often call this "Black Friday," the day when the surge of holiday buying -- and profit -- is supposed to put them into the black. Yesterday at Lakeforest and hundreds of Washington area retail centers, all was in readiness for the make-or-break buying season: Fully loaded shelves and stocked aisles; temporary workers preparing glittering displays; security guards girding for a busy shoplifting season; and new employes learning gift-wrapping and other arts of commerce.
By late afternoon, the mall had handed out 70 strollers and filled more than 5,000 of its 5,700 parking spaces. Crismond estimated that the shopping crowd was 30 percent heavier than on a typical Saturday, when sales at the Hecht Co. or Woodward & Lothrop department stores draw large numbers of bargain hunters.
"I was beginning to wonder if they had canceled Christmas at the beginning of the month," said Randy Taylor, the manager at Wilson's Men's Stores. But recently -- after early November sales had shown a 20 percent drop compared with last year -- things rebounded, Taylor said. "I've increased my business 20-plus percent during the past week, which is an indication to me that the market may not have any effect on us."
Merchants were particularly anxious about yesterday's turnout. The uncertain economy and unseasonably warm weather didn't exactly put consumers in the mood for Christmas shopping. And their hopes for a Veterans Day sales bonanza had been unexpectedly buried in a freak 12-inch snowstorm.
But yesterday, even heavy morning rain didn't discourage holiday shoppers.
"We call it Black Friday because it's the busiest shopping day of the year," said Andria Tedesco, 19, who was waiting on customers at Bailey Banks & Biddle jewelry store.
Shoppers, attracted by the store's advertisements of 35 to 50 percent price reductions, were keeping her busy. One was interested in a pearl necklace, another eyed the gold chains and a third inquired about engagement rings.
Business had dipped for a few days after the stock market plunged, according to Jose Calvo, the jewelry store's manager. "But it picked right back up again," he said, and even the most expensive items are selling well.
At another jewelry store, Weisfeld's, which moved into the mall two weeks ago, customers have been showing a strong interest in watches and other items costing thousands of dollars, according to store officials.
"I'm not getting the volume I wanted to get, but the surprising part is they're spending more," said Barry Gurwitz, the manager. He said one customer is considering buying a $40,000 diamond pendant.
During a toy and department store trip, Marshall Pittman, a consultant from Olney, affirmed his faith in the economy and in his own buying power. Escorting his daughter Nikki, 12, and his son Marc, 5, Pittman priced the gifts of their hearts' desires.
Nikki fancied the high fashion clothing, "those $30 jeans, $40 sweaters and $50 jackets," her father said. Marc wanted the high-tech toys advertised on television: a $39.99 Captain Power air combat simulator and a $79 Nintendo electronic game system. Both will get what's on their Christmas list, Pittman said.
"As long as both my wife and I are working, the kids will have a good Christmas," he said.
An island of uncertainty amid the optimism was J.C. Penney's electronics department, which the company will soon be closing, according to a salesman. There, shortly after 9 a.m., Yvonne Kaster of Germantown swooped through to buy a microwave oven that was discounted from $349.95 to $179.95 during a two-hour special.
"We never buy anything unless it's on sale," said Kaster.
John Fotopoulos, the salesman who waited on her, said business appeared slower than usual at the store because holiday shoppers have backed away from major purchases. "They're not in a hurry to buy things with a high-ticket price," he said. "They're looking for smaller things, like radios and lower-priced cameras."
That was not the case, however, at other stores in the mall where all manner of electronic gadgetry was being snapped up.
"We sell a lot of big-ticket items -- the computers and VCRs," said Dave Sickle, Radio Shack's district manager, who was one of six employes handling a crush of customers yesterday. "Toys are always good buys -- we're selling a lot of remote-control cars."
At Video Concept, the $1,199 portable movie cameras have been very popular this season, according to Reta Smith, the assistant manager, who said the store expected to sell six or seven before the end of the day. "We get people who just plunk down cash" for the portable movie cameras, Smith said. "They say they've just been saving up for them."
Sales of merchandise, including 13-inch remote-controlled television sets, $1,000 audio systems and large-screen sets, have doubled over last month, she said.
Across the hall, Pashko Gjonaj, an IBM computer programmer, was shopping with his two children at Kay-Bee Toy & Hobby Shop, where boxes of talking computers and talking dolls were stacked adult high.
Gjonaj said he planned to spend the same amount on toys this year as last, but was searching for more durable ones "that wouldn't fall apart after two weeks."
Most shoppers appeared to be holding up well as they elbowed their way through the aisles, waited patiently at counters or stood in the long line leading to a chat with Santa.
Outside, eagle-eyed motorists stalked people returning to their cars with packages, hoping to claim any close-in parking spots. Inside, the two-level mall was adorned with Christmas lights, holly, bells and other decorative trappings. The Holiday Brass quintet drew crowds and soothed nerves with spirited renditions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "The Holly and the Ivy."
At The Gap, to the strains of Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas," Ronni Rubinson, 17, looked at miniskirts. But the Rockville resident had no reason for being blue herself: Grandma was paying.
Most shoppers said they were just getting started on their Christmas shopping. Anne Harvey, a home economics teacher from Gaithersburg, was just finishing. "This is it," she said, holding up jeans she planned to purchase for a nephew.
Shopping crowds had begun to form as early as 7:30 a.m. when Paul Marshall, the mall's security force lieutenant, found people waiting in the icy rain for shops to open. By lunchtime, there were lines outside all the restaurants. By late afternoon, shoppers moved nearly shoulder-to-shoulder at some sections of the corridors.
Increases in sales at the 9-year-old shopping center has paralleled development in the fast-growing upper half of Montgomery County, according to the mall's Crismond. While refusing to provide a total sales figure, she said the 1.2 million-square-foot mall ranked in the top three in the region in sales per square foot of space.
A number of shoppers came from Frederick and Hagerstown -- about 25 and 40 miles north, respectively -- journeying from their Maryland cities to shop in Lakeforest's large department stores.
"I'm looking for jewelry because I could never afford it when my kids were small," said Connie Douglas of Hagerstown, a cafeteria worker for the Washington County Board of Education. She said she was spending more than usual on her Christmas shopping "because I started earlier."
While most shoppers interviewed yesterday expressed confidence in the economy, one spoke in apocalyptic tones.
"I anticipate a major depression over the next few years -- something bad, I mean, really bad," said Dr. Rogers C. Burlton, a psychiatrist from Rockville. "I'm talking about things being so bad that we could fall as a nation."
The economic outlook has discouraged him from buying a new house, he said, but his chilling view of the future hasn't cooled his wallet.
Burlton and his wife Camille were out shopping for hunting gear.
Staff writer David Hilzenrath contributed to this report.