Cathy Vawter, manager of Kmart on Wesel Boulevard, said she thinks people have learned that shopping early gives them a better choice of merchandise.
The season's hot toys - like Sleep and Snore Ernie and Holiday Barbie - keep disappearing from the shelves and have to be reordered, Vawter said.
Some women's sweater styles meant for holiday gift-giving had already sold out in October and were reordered, said Jeff Schwaninger, a senior buyer for JC Penney in the Valley Mall.
"You have to shop earlier to get what you want," said JC Penney merchandiser Kathy Diehl.
People realize that and have started Christmas shopping earlier, Diehl said.
In a recent survey, consumers said a large selection was the third most important reason they chose a particular store, according to the National Retail Federation.
First was better-quality merchandise, and second was ease of checkout.
Price - the prime consideration in early 1990s surveys - didn't make the top three this year.
In the same survey, consumers from this region said they expect to spend an average of $804 on their holiday gifts this year, said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based retail trade association.
While that reflects a 3 percent increase over what they said last year, it's a lot lower than the 8.3 percent increase retailers said they expect this year, Krugman said.
Based on a combination of survey results and a study of economic trends and data, the National Trade Federation is forecasting a moderate 3.8 percent increase in holiday spending over last year, he said.
"It's a conservative prediction, to say the least," Krugman said.
According to the survey, women's, men's and children's clothing will remain the top gifts, with toys a close second and CDs, tapes and videos a close third.
Gift certificates will be more popular this year, with 42 percent of consumers putting them on their shopping lists versus 34 percent last year.
Bad news for retailers: one-third of consumers surveyed said they plan to give more nontraditional gifts, like personal services, home-made items and vouchers for meals, vacations and services like golf lessons and makeovers.
The Arlington, Va.-based Inter-national Mass Retail Association is predicting a good year for retailers, with a 3 to 4 percent increase in holiday sales over last year, said Robin Lanier, senior vice president for industry affairs.
Based on economic indicators and previous sales trends, the figure is more optimistic than the less than 1 percent more consumers said they plan to spend in a recent survey, Lanier said.
Consumers said they expect to spend an average of $813 per family on gifts this year, compared to $806 last year.
"It's kind of a measure of how confident they are going into the season," Lanier said.
The Maryland Retailers Association is predicting a 3.5 percent increase in holiday sales over last year, said association president Tom Saquella.
The prediction probably would have been more optimistic given favorable economic conditions like expanding employment, low inflation, increasing income and high consumer confident levels, but was tempered by poorer-than-indicated sales this year, Saquella said.
The mixed sales performance shows consumers have been cautious so far, he said.
The trend in recent years toward starting holiday shopping earlier continued this year, Saquella said.
It's been fostered by a trend among retailers to start drawing customers earlier with "preholiday" sales, he said.
More people are starting their shopping in early November rather than waiting for the traditional "Black Friday" rush following Thanksgiving, Saquella said.
Jenny Lark, of Hagerstown, said she started her Christmas shopping at the beginning of November so she could take her time and find the best buys.
"You find more values when you shop around more," Lark said.
Still, she said, she's expecting to spend more this year because her Christmas list has grown by a new set of twin grandchildren.
When all is said and done, Lark said, she will probably have spent about $2,000 on Christmas gifts this year.
Earl and Bertha Jones, of Boonsboro, said they always start Christmas shopping by early November because they have to send packages overseas and cross country.
However, with four children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren to buy for, they never finish up until Christmas Eve, Earl Jones said.
They budget around $1,000 every year for Christmas gifts, but it's not a hard-and-fast figure, he said.
"I think last year, it was $1,500. We're trying to keep it down to $1,000 this year, but we probably won't," he said.