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Shoppers across the state shifted into a higher gear this past week, fueled by last-minute gift-buying panic and abundant sales, pushing retail sales volume 4 to 6 percent above 1996 levels.

Western New Yorkers fell right in line with that accelerated pace, recovering from weather-related slowdowns a week earlier. Local retailers reported gains of 4 to 5 percent compared to the same seven-day period in 1996.

The Retail Council of New York State Tuesday reported the results of its merchant survey for the Dec. 16 through 22 period, noting a surge in sales during the final full shopping week before Christmas and Hanukkah.

James A. Quaremba, council president and chief executive officer, said sales over the past week helped retailers recover a bit from what has turned out to be a rather ho-hum selling season.

"The season has progressed at a relatively steady, but unspectacular pace," Quaremba said. "Modest gains were the goal, and it appears that the strong last-minute activity will certainly help retailers attain those gains."

New York merchants apparently are luckier than their counterparts in other parts of the country. Sales at 2,500 stores in 49 malls nationwide rose just 2 percent in the first three weeks of the season ended Sunday, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade group.

There was only a 0.6 percent gain in the seven days ended Sunday, which many considered the busiest shopping period of the year, the International Council of Shopping Centers said.

Many analysts had been expecting a 3 percent to 4 percent rise in sales during the season.

"There isn't much good news out there," said Irwin Cohen, chairman of the retail and consumer products group at Deloitte & Touche LLP.

The likely disappointing outcome to the season is a surprise to many retailers who a month ago were feeling optimistic about Christmas. Consumer confidence levels were high and the economy has been growing at a robust pace. After two lackluster Christmas seasons, stores hoped for a turnaround in 1997. But consumers haven't spent freely this Christmas. Many stuck to their budgets, scaling back their gift-buying; others just weren't excited with the merchandise they found in stores.

Even big discounts -- some as much as 70 percent off -- failed to drive up sales significantly.

"Christmas just isn't as important anymore," said Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Management Horizons, a unit of Price Waterhouse. "Americans, especially Baby Boomers, have started realizing that they don't need more stuff."

In its weekly update on the holiday shopping season, New York's retail council noted that independent merchants performed well in the past several days. Ted Potrikus, the retail group's executive director, said small specialty shops are having great success.

"A couple of our members in that category are reporting huge double-digit increases," he said. "They can't explain and either can we. Maybe people are looking for something really different these last few days."

As last-minute shoppers rush to fill their lists before stores and malls close this evening for Christmas celebrations, they are expected to purchase many of the same things that have been hot since the Thanksgiving weekend kickoff to the official shopping season.

Beanie Babies and Interactive Barney are still flying off store shelves, along with electronic and video games, board games and train sets. Late-season shipments of the scarce Sing and Snore Ernie also delighted thousands of shoppers who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

In the apparel category, winter-wear basics, leather coats and fleece clothing are leading the pack.

Perennial favorites such as books, jewelry, audio and video equipment and collectibles also are big sellers around the state.

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