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BARGAINS GALORE AWAIT SHOPPERS

Super Specials. Super Saturday. Four-Hour Specials. Delay pay for 90 days. Save 30 percent. Save 40 percent. Save 50 percent. "The entire store is yours."

Promotions.

While they were fierce last year and slow off the mark this year, a glance at the daily ads shows that the holiday markdown season has reached a fevered pitch.

"It's as though there were a national liquidation sale on Christmas inventory," said retail analyst George Rosenbaum, president of Leo J. Shapiro & Associates. "There isn't a major retailer who hasn't drastically cut prices."

Retailers this season were prepared for reluctant shoppers following advance reports of consumer apathy. Merchants said they kept inventories lean so that they would not have to drastically cut prices to clear stock that had not sold before Dec. 25.

But consumers apparently are winning the cat-and-mouse game of holding back dollars until retailers reduce prices.

Adam, Meldrum & Anderson Co. offers savings up to 25 percent on clothing, housewares, jewelry and accessories. Anderson Little says: "The entire store is yours" while offering 20 percent to 50 percent off their clothing. The L.L. Berger specialty clothing chain says: "After-Christmas savings now. Take 25 percent off everything."

"Everybody is aggressive," said Walter F. Loeb, a retail analyst with Loeb Associates in Chicago. Traditional discounters such as Kmart as well as J.C. Penney are discounting in order to maintain market share.

Rosenbaum predicts that this deep discounting could drive many stores out of the market. The new year will bring closings of many individual stores, as well as the shutdown of selected stores in national chains.

And several national and local stores are wavering.

Prudential-Bache Securities in November lowered its expectations for several national retailers, including Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Hartmarx Corp., which owns Kleinhans in Buffalo. The two retailers made drastic changes in their operations to cut costs and improve profits this year.

Sears is expanding its markdowns to include exercise equipment, home lighting and electric blankets and stepping up advertising.

J.C. Penney customers will see 50 percent markdowns this weekend. Kmart also is marking down items but said the move was planned well in advance.

"Consumers can get more for their money. But lower prices don't always mean better value," said Gary W. Cejka, president of Kleinhans.

Prices at the 98-year-old specialty clothier are higher, but it offers special services such as alterations and hassle-free refunds and exchanges that customers should weigh as heavily price, Cejka said. But Kleinhans, too, has taken more markdowns this Christmas season.

Gutman's has run deeper discount promotions this year than last year, according to a company spokesman. But markdowns currently are limited to specific merchandise, not throughout the entire store.

"People are prepared for it," the spokesman said. "From an inventory standpoint, there is not that need to dump goods."

Downtown merchants have been "incredibly aggressive in their promotions," said Dottie Gallagher, promotions manager for Buffalo Place, which manages downtown's shopping and theater districts.

About 100 businesses participated in the Great Holiday Gift Away, which she called the group's most expensive most effective promotion.

The scratch-and-win coupon offer gives an estimated $433,341 in prizes and discounts redeemable at area stores, restaurants and theaters. It is the only unified marketing effort for all downtown, Ms. Gallagher said.

Ms. Gallagher observed that downtown retailers also discounted their prices earlier. Casual Corner and L.L. Berger are among those offering storewide markdowns, plus additional price cuts on specific items.

"But downtown is doing OK," Ms. Gallagher said. Sales figures, aided by Canadian shoppers who have discovered downtown, are on par with last year, she said.

Traditionally safe areas such as toys and luxury goods are discounting heavily. Jindo, a Niagara Falls furrier, and Glickstein, an Amherst jeweler, are advertising up to 50 percent off. Jindo offers discounts on fur and leather goods plus a 90-day payment delay on credit purchases.

Toys "R" Us recently announced 30 percent to 75 percent discounts on $100 million worth of merchandise, largely left from last year.

Although the size and scope of this sale is similar the one launched by Child World earlier this month, a Toys "R" Us spokeswoman said the company was not responding to the price cutting by its much smaller competitor.

"We really didn't do anything in response to Child World," said Angela Bourdon, of Toys "R" Us, which is headquartered in Paramus, N.J. "We ran no unscheduled promotions or sales."

Cash-strapped Child World has been running a sale with up to 50 percent off, mainly on year-old items, and said it will withhold payments to creditors in order to raise needed funds. Days later Toys "R" Us and Kay-Bee Toy and Hobby followed by announcing deep discounts. Toys "R" Us has 25 percent of the market. Child World is a distant second with 6 percent.

Overall toy sales for most retailers this season may be disappointing but not terribly low, industry observers have said. Christmas sales were up about 8 percent at K&K Toys in the Walden Galleria. But they are not what was anticipated, said Wayne M. Stanton, store manager.

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