SOUTH PORTLAND – Thanksgiving is still more than a week away, but Christmas is in the air at the Maine Mall.

Santa Claus arrived Saturday, setting up shop in front of the Gap and marking the start of a holiday season in which shoppers say they will spend cautiously because of economic uncertainty.

On Monday, wide-eyed kids — and a few giggling adults — took turns meeting with Santa, who was plopped in an easy chair in front of a snowy miniature village.

Jessica Gagnon, 23, and Jeremy Feldbauer, 23, brought their 4-month-old daughter, Leah Isabella, to the mall for a snapshot with Santa.

“She loves the lights on the carousel and tugging on Santa’s beard,” said Gagnon, who spent $25 on six Santa photos and a key chain.

After she met with Santa, 3-year-old Lillian Page gazed at model trains chugging through the miniature village erected behind Santa. “She likes Thomas the Train the best,” said Lillian’s grandmother, Pat Bell of Cape Elizabeth.

Kids were concerned with toys, but parents and other shoppers said money and the economy were on their minds.

Feldbauer, a seasonal roofer, said he’s out of work. “It’s a good thing I have grandparents,” he said. “They give us diapers and other small things.”

Carol Gray of Bucksport, who was shopping at the mall Monday with her friend Lynn Hunt of Bangor, said she will spend less on everything this year, including gifts.

“Last year I overspent,” said Gray, whose husband is due to retire in June. “I used to ask for diamonds. This year I am asking for a lamp.”

Despite consumers’ hesitancy, some Maine retailers are optimistic.

According to a survey by the Maine Merchants Association, 43 percent of the 71 retailers polled expect 2010 holiday sales to top 2009 sales. Thirty-five percent expect sales to remain flat.

Nationally, holiday sales are expected to increase 2.3 percent, to $447 billion, according to the National Retail Federation.

Retailers are doing all they can to entice wary shoppers to spend. Walmart.com, for instance, eliminated shipping fees on purchases of 60,000 holiday items through Dec. 20.

And Target and RadioShack are offering free shipping on thousands of items ordered online, according to the retailers’ websites.

For Michael Strong, who shopped at the mall Monday, some deals are too good to pass up.

“I am saying I am going to spend less, but there seems to be such good buys that we will probably spend the same,” he said.

 

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or at:

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