In fact, in recent months, sales in this economic sector have been holding up more strongly here than statewide.
During the July, August and September quarter, when purchases at such stores rose 1.2 percent here on the strength of September's increase, they fell nearly 1.5 percent throughout Maryland.
Statewide, in September alone, sales climbed just 2.6 percent at such stores.
The numbers sound hopeful for Washington County and, though less strong, for retailers throughout the state, said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association since 1985.
Sales have been rising for some stores since August and for some, since September or October, Saquella said.
For many, "the amount of loss compared to a year ago is narrowed, even if sales haven't increased. We think the worst is over, but it's going to be a long recovery. But at least the numbers are pointing upward," Saquella said.
"The unemployment is still a serious problem and will certainly hurt sales. (But) we were in a crisis 12 months ago," he said.
During the Christmas season a year ago, "sales were down, I think we figured in Maryland, a little over 3 percent, and the year before, they were down as well -- almost 4 percent," Saquella said.
A new survey indicates that many of the association's 600-plus retailers are "cautiously optimistic -- not wildly optimistic," he said.
Of those sampled, "over half were optimistic about the season compared to less than 20 percent last year," he said.
Driven by electronics
Steven James, manager of the Wal-Mart Supercenter off Garland Groh Boulevard near Hagerstown's western fringe, wasn't surprised the tax data shows retail sales grew from last September to this.
There are "different electronics that actually drove some of that sales," James said. "Laptops got cheaper, those kind of things" happened, he said.
"If last year, laptops were $498 and this year, $298, you understand what I'm saying? The industry's come down on electronics during that time," James said.
Both he and Kelly Cheeseman, a spokesman at Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., declined to talk about sales figures or whether they have increased at the local store. Cheeseman also wouldn't talk about the local Sam's Club store.
However, Cheeseman did say that "Wal-Mart collected on behalf of the State of Maryland more than $153.3 million in sales taxes" in fiscal 2009, which for the chain is from Feb. 1, 2008, through Jan. 31, 2009.
Using the state's 6-cent sales tax rate, that would equal more than $2.5 billion in sales for the chain's 44 Wal-Mart stores and 12 Sam's Club stores in Maryland.
Asked how much Wal-Mart collected in sales taxes for the state in fiscal 2008, Cheeseman declined to provide any more such information.
For a broader look at the chain, she referred a reporter to Wal-Mart's Web site for investors. It reports that the company achieved record earnings, helped by improved inventory management in its August, September and October quarter.
Its net sales in the quarter rose 1.1 percent compared to the year-ago period, the Web site said. Wal-Mart reported weakness in one crucial indicator -- sales at U.S. stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales, fell 0.4 percent.
The Tribune said Wal-Mart forecast that fourth-quarter earnings, which include the Christmas shopping season, could fall short of Wall Street's estimates.
The newspaper's Web site said the company attributed the same-store sales decline solely to falling prices. It quoted Eduardo Castro-Wright, who oversees Wal-Mart's U.S. operations, as saying the results were "driven by price deflation that was well beyond what we had expected, across many food categories, as well as electronics."
'How can we help?'
Meantime, over at Hagerstown's Kmart, Feltz said customers seem to be coping with the economy better now.
"We did kind of struggle through the summer, but as the winter and fall merchandise came in," sales picked up, Feltz said. "You could tell, even just talking to folks, 'I'm getting it done' or 'I'm getting a little bit done a bit at a time.'"
For the local Kmart, two special efforts seem to have especially helped, he said.
One was "a huge focus on our in-store basic items. We really tried to focus on having those above all else -- toothbrushes, cereal, shampoos. Obviously, somebody's going to pass up a video game when they need garbage bags.