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Many of the bag-toting customers who filled the Walden Galleria mall Wednesday -- exchanging,returning and some even buying more items -- said they spent less this holiday season, contributing to what was a lackluster year for retailers.

Retail analysts had predicted that promotions and discounts would be essential this year because higher oil prices and the Persian Gulf crisis further weakened the retail market. Looking back over the 1990 holiday shopping season, which will be remembered for big markdowns,lean inventories and thrifty spending, local retailers said sales were below last year's level -- but not by much.

"They were down from last year, not considerably, but they were down," said January R. Martin, manager of Whitehall Co. jewelers at the Galleria. Shoppers were out in numbers but this year they were buying for others instead of themselves, which meant that they seemed to spend less on each item, Ms. Martin said.

She characterized this year's shoppers as less selfish, more conscious of their credit card balance and very practical in their gift giving. The 1990 shopper bought gold for others, whereas the 1989 shopper had bought diamonds for themselves, Ms. Martin observed.

However, a Bonwit Teller promotion apparently was one factor in bringing in enough paying customers to help the store pass last year's sales figures by a significant 27.5 percent, said Roger Holzheimer, Bonwit's general manager.

The promotion, which gave a terrycloth bathrobe with $50 purchases and an application for store credit cards, garnered more than 3,000 new and reactivated accounts, Holzheimer said.

But many shoppers admitted they were cautious this year.

"We spent less on each other," a Cheektowaga man said of his and his wife's Christmas spending. The couple estimated they spent 20 percent less this year, but their 15-month-old baby "cleaned up." The couple asked to have their names withheld so that family members wouldn't know they returned their gifts.

Gwen M. and Marybeth A. Gioia, sisters from Depew, both estimated they spent about $50 less this Christmas. "I didn't have that much money this year," said Gwen, 19. "I just got other things for people; things on sale and things they could use for more than just decoration," said Marybeth, 18.

Dramatic price-cutting, promotions and flashy new fashions helped some retailers combat a sluggish economy and inspired many customers to spend their cash. Other retailers fought the urge to sell merchandise at after-Christmas prices before the holiday. The strategy apparently paid off.

Canadian shoppers and some from Pennsylvania and Rochester once again buoyed the Western New York retail sector, retailers said.

Wednesday was Boxing Day, a Canadian holiday, which gave a boost to Western New York retailers. Years ago, Boxing Day -- always the first weekday after Christmas -- was the day people gave gifts in boxes to domestic workers and public employees; now it is another opportunity for Canadians to cross the border to shop.

Canadian shoppers, as well as a few flashy fashion items, helped sales at Harve Benard, a women's clothier. Leathers, suedes and washed silks added spark to the store's restrained yet glamorous collection. Sales for the holiday season were down slightly when compared to last year but these items helped pick up some of the slack and sold well on Christmas Eve, said Diane T. Cobb, the store's assistant manager.

Retailers hoped to avoid drastic markdowns before Christmas by condensing their inventories and canceling orders. But forecasts of cloudy holiday sales came true and some retailers were cutting prices in half just days before Christmas.

But Holzheimer said Bonwit Teller did not follow that pattern and the move paid off. "Our inventory levels were higher than they ever had been," he said. "We followed regular markdown procedures and it really paid off."

Cache, a trendy women's clothier, also followed its regular markdown schedule and sold as well as other similar stores in its national chain. Markdowns typically are taken each week in the store, said Charisse E. Cleague, the store's manager. However, "We didn't do anything special. We followed our regular pattern," she said.

Jacovia Cunningham of East Ferry Street is among those who spent more than last year. In fact, Cunningham was still Christmas shopping Wednesday.

Holding an outfit he said he had bought for his mother, Cunningham boasted about the $96 discount he had gotten on the item by buying late.

"You get better deals the day after Christmas," Cunningham said. "It's always good to shop the day after."

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