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Holiday '99 is living up to predictions that it will be one of the best retail events in memory as far as New York State merchants are concerned.

From Jamestown to Watertown to Manhattan, retailers saw sales increases of between 5 percent and 7 percent for the period Dec. 14-20, according to the Retail Council of New York State.

"I always take it as a very good sign that our members are too busy to talk when we call them for our weekly Holiday Sales Watch survey updates," said Ted Potrikus, spokesman for the Council. "Nobody had time to chat with us this time around, they have their hands full with customers."

Western and Central New York retailers tended to chart their sales increases over the same period last year in the 5 percent to 6 percent range, while the biggest gains were reported by Manhattan stores. On an individual basis, more than a few retailers were thrilled to report sales gains well into the double-digits.

"Given how strong this same sales week was a year ago (with sales up 4 to 6 percent), these increases speak volumes about how strong consumer demand really is," Potrikus said.

Toys, a traditionally hot seller, are "red-hot" this holiday, driven in large part by Pokemon products, particularly the hard-to-find electronic Game Boy version. Other major movers are Rock-And-Roll Elmo and Ernie, Toy Story 2-linked playthings, talking WWF dolls, Millennium Barbie and radio-controlled cars and airplanes.

Treehouse Toys, a local, independent toy shop, with locations in Buffalo and Hamburg, reports strong sales, even though it doesn't carry the most heavily-advertised toys that are hot this season.

Gaetana Schueckler, who co-owns the business with her husband, David, said the absence of mass-produced toys hasn't slowed sales.

"We're up in both traffic and sales, even though we aren't carrying Beanie Babies this year," Schueckler said. "We're definitely doing strong numbers."

Although Treehouse shops don't sell anything bearing the Pokemon label, the business has benefited from that craze via the sale of small toy safes.

"The kids want them to put their cards in, so they are clean and safe. We're gone through three shipments of them," she said.

Other big sellers are lip balm kits, Milky Pens, anything Madeline, Bendos figurines, Lincoln Logs and Estes rocket kits.

Among the kid-driven sales trend is the unstoppable popularity of the Harry Potter book series, which now includes three titles. Potrikus said the Harry Potter craze has sent book-seekers to independent bookstores, as well as, the mega-chains, like Barnes & Noble, Borders and Media Play.

"It's been a long time since we've seen books with so much drawing power. It's taking many consumers into the new territory of the independent bookstore," he said.

Jonathon Welch, owner of Talking Leaves books, located at 3158 Main St. in Buffalo has noticed a number of new faces this season.

"One never knows what drives people here, but we have noticed more new customers this season," Welch said. "I would suppose the Harry Potter books are a factor. We've certainly been selling a lot of them."

Book buyers are also being drawn in by a bumper crop of so-called "century" books, titles related to the close of the 1900s and the events of the past 100 years, according to the bookseller.

Malls and power centers, across the nation, and here in Western New York reported huge crowds Dec. 18 and 19, the last weekend of the 1999 holiday shopping season. From Prime Outlets in Niagara County, to Chautauqua Mall in Chautauqua County, Western New Yorkers quickened their buying pace, as they counted the shopping days left until Christmas Eve.

"Last weekend was definitely the busiest of the year for us," said Maureen Fisher, manager of the Chautauqua Mall. "But because people have another five days to shop, they seemed to be pacing themselves. They weren't panicking, so I think a lot of them will be back at least one more time."

The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) reported Tuesday that sales at malls nationwide climbed 6.8 percent in the third full week of the Christmas period.

"Across all categories, the momentum continues to build. Both sales and traffic are strong," said John Konarski, the ICSC's senior vice president of research.

The mall organization estimates that some 310 million people shopped at the nation's malls in the past week, with the count on Dec. 18 hitting 68 million, the year's largest single-day total.

Konarski noted that the last 15 days of the Thanksgiving to Christmas period account for more than 46 percent of all holiday sales.

"We are now more than halfway through the most critical period," he said. "The 1999 holiday season is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory."

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