- The Washington Times - Friday, November 23, 2001

Britta M. Monaco sometimes feels like the deputy mayor of a small town. Except this hamlet has walls and a ceiling. And Santa Claus spends a lot of time hanging around the town square.
Mrs. Monaco is marketing director for the Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg. She is responsible for promoting the mall and its activities, as well as running its customer service department.
"People tend to view this shopping center as their marketplace. It has its own sense of community," she says.
Today, the "town" of Lakeforest will be bustling with more folks than usual. Hundreds of shoppers are expected to fill the mall's corridors for "Black Friday," the holiday shopping season's traditional kickoff.
Mrs. Monaco spent Wednesday putting the finishing touches on Lakeforest's Black Friday preparations.
She arrives at her desk at 7:40 a.m. The management offices are below ground on the mall's lower level.
After checking her voice mail and e-mail messages, Mrs. Monaco leaves her office at 10 a.m. to chat with the mall's tenants. She likes to stroll around Lakeforest's corridors at least once a day to make sure business is running smoothly for tenants and customers.
This morning, Mrs. Monaco notices that an athletic shoe store hasn't opened. She alerts the management office with her walkie-talkie, which she carries with her at all times.
Most tenants in Lakeforest are required to follow the mall's business hours. The management office will try to find out why the store hasn't opened, she says.
Mrs. Monaco pops into a leather goods shop, where a clerk tells her that his luggage sales "died" when consumers began scaling back their travel plans this fall. Later, the saleswoman in an upscale gift shop tells Mrs. Monaco that the store hopes its expensive gifts which include porcelain dolls of Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Diana that sell for about $195 apiece sell well, despite the economic slowdown.
Mrs. Monaco also checks in on a "relaxation station" that the mall has set up on its upper level next to the Kay-Bee toy shop. The station is a vacant storefront with leather sofas and chairs for holiday shoppers who need a break.
Lakeforest will also provide gift wrapping for its customers at the station. In addition, it has also set up a small shop for children who want to use their allowance to buy holiday gifts for their family.
Next, Mrs. Monaco drops by the mall's customer service desk. The customer service workers give shoppers directions to stores, and sell gift certificates that can be used in any Lakeforest store.
The workers also answer shoppers' questions. The most common questions, Mrs. Monaco says, are "What time is it?" and "Where's the bathroom?"
The customer service workers are "the eyes and ears of the shopping center. They're the first line of defense," she says.
As she strolls through Lakeforest's corridors, Mrs. Monaco says Black Friday is usually not too stressful for the mall's managers.
"If I've done my job right, then we're in more of a maintenance mode at this point. For us, most of the real work is already done."
Lakeforest began planning for the holidays months ago, she says. The mall was decorated during the first week of November, and Santa Claus arrived Nov. 17.
The splashy debut required three men to play the part of Santa, Mrs. Monaco says. The first was a Montgomery County police officer who drove around the parking lot and waved to children. Next, a local actor entertained shoppers during a musical show in the mall's center court.
Finally, when it came time for Santa to sit down and have his photograph taken with children, a third man took over the role. Since then, the mall has relied on two men to play Santa; one works a day shift and the other works nights.
After dropping by a chocolate shop for a cup of coffee, Mrs. Monaco returns to her office at 11:45 a.m. She will eat her lunch at her desk and then attend a meeting with the mall's managers.
At the meeting, the managers will put the final touches on their Black Friday plan. Among the few things left to do are to make sure the mall is fully stocked with rental strollers.
In addition, the managers also have to get in touch with Montgomery County traffic-control officials. If traffic gets too heavy at the mall, the managers want the county to adjust the traffic signals so there aren't bottlenecks at the entrances.
Later in the afternoon, Mrs. Monaco will meet with Lakeforest's advertising agency to discuss next year's promotional campaign. Then she'll start planning the mall's annual Chinese New Year celebration, which begins in February.
Mrs. Monaco says she likes her job. Malls are like no other workplaces, she says.
"Since it's totally enclosed, we sometimes don't know if it's snowing or raining outside. But it's such a dynamic environment inside. It's not sterile at all," she says.
Most mall managers aren't allowed to take vacations between Nov. 1 and Jan. 1, Mrs. Monaco says. When she's feeling overworked during the holidays, she visits the center court where children are photographed with Santa.
"If I'm feeling particularly stressed, I'll just watch the kids. Seeing their eyes widen and their faces light up makes you feel better."

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