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RETAILERS AGLOW FROM TAX HOLIDAYS

New York's sales tax holiday ended Sunday, but retailers still basked today in the after-glow of red-hot sales.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the opportunity to buy without sales tax brought out the crowds," said Maureen Fisher, acting general manager of the Chautauqua Mall. "Any time we can keep shoppers here, instead of heading to Pennsylvania, we're just thrilled."

And that's exactly what state lawmakers intended when they approved the sales-tax holiday, which ran from Jan. 18 through Sunday. The whole idea behind the brief tax hiatus, the fifth the state has held, was to keep New Yorkers shopping in New York, instead of spending their money in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, where sales tax-free buying is the norm.

Locally, the Chautauqua Mall is among the hardest hit by a migration of consumers across state lines to sales tax free venues.

When Jamestown-area residents need to make major clothing and footwear purchases, the Warren Mall in Warren, Pa., is a half-hour drive away. And for those seeking greater variety, Erie, Pa., and its sales tax free shopping is less than an hour away.

Ted Potrikus, of the Retail Council of New York State, said more than a few border state retailers saw sales drop during the eight-day sales tax holiday.

"I'm sure there were retailers standing in their parking lots wondering where all the cars with New York State license plates went," Potrikus said. "We've gotten a number of anecdotal reports that border state merchants didn't have such a great week. I think that speaks volumes about what happens when you take away the sales tax."

While the tax-free holiday was primarily designed
to get New Yorkers to shop in New York, the sales tax free weeks have also served to boost overall sales.

A variety of retailers, ranging from independent shoe stores and clothing boutiques, to national and regional chains, such as Sears, J.C. Penney and The Bon-Ton, reported surges in sales during the tax-free period.

Michael L. Gleim, Bon-Ton's senior vice president and chief operating officer, called the sales volume excellent for the week.

"It went very, very well again this year in what has been, overall, a very weak month for our New York stores," Gleim said.

The non-stop snows in the first half of January turned shoppers into shovelers and left clearance merchandise lingering on store racks and shelves at Bon-Ton's Western and Central New York stores.

"I have a hard time saying what brought out shoppers more, the absence of sales tax or cabin fever. All I know is that we did even better this year than last during the sales tax holiday," Gleim added.

Independent men's retailer Michael Attardo, who operates Get Dressed at 578 Elmwood Ave. in Buffalo, said snow-clogged city streets continued to keep shoppers away for the first few days of the sales tax holiday. In fact, he said he lost so much business due to snow-caused parking and walking problems, he's planning to keep the tax vacation going an extra week by paying the 8 percent difference out of his own pocket.

His huge, hand-lettered signs proclaiming "sales-tax-free shopping" will stay in his front windows through this coming weekend.

"The last three days were so tremendous, I thought I'd keep things going by continuing the extra 8 percent discount," Attardo said, noting snowless sidewalks. "I think I had my busiest day in 25 years on Saturday. I'd like to see more of that."

This is the last scheduled sales tax holiday until the state permanently drops its 4 percent sales tax on clothing and footwear priced at $110 and under, on Dec. 1. However, state lawmakers are expected to consider adding another "back-to-school" tax free week in late August or early September.

State officials might also tinker with the $110 price limit to give consumers a better tax break on big-ticket items.

Local elected officials will spend the next several months mulling over their participation. Erie County lawmakers face a decision on foregoing all or part of the 4 percent collected by Erie County, while in Niagara County, it's a 3 percent decision.

Attardo is keeping his fingers crossed that local lawmakers will decide in favor of consumers.

"How many times do we have to be told we're one of the highest taxed communities in the nation before someone does something?," Attardo questioned. "Erie County legislators have to be willing to consider giving up a portion of the sales tax income. It would be so good for so many people."

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