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Retailers' dreams of a 5 to 7 percent jump in holiday sales this year came true, according to the Retail Council of New York State.

Early predictions of holiday green rang true at cash registers across the state, according to retailers from Buffalo to Binghamton to the Big Apple. The solid, single-digit improvement over last year's holiday sales earned the selling season a letter grade "A," the first time the council has awarded the perfect score since it began grading the holiday sale period in 1993.

"Put an 'A' on that report card," said Retail Council President and CEO James A. Quaremba. "Merchants in our survey really enjoyed the holiday shopping season."

During the comparable period a year ago, sales were up by 3 to 5 percent from the prior holiday, earning the season a "B."

The council's snapshot is an aggregate of holiday sales activity in stores small and large throughout New York State, including data from up to 200 retailers. This year's high mark reflects strong sales throughout the state, with the very highest regional sales statistics coming from New York City.

Russ Fulton, marketing director for Walden Galleria, Western New York's largest shopping center, said the letter grade "A" does not do the season justice.

"I'd go higher, can we say 'A-plus-plus?' Merchandise was just flying out of here, especially in the last two weeks," Fulton said.

In a survey of mall retailers Monday, the mall executive heard consistent reports of double-digit sales increases at stores open at least a year, with one store checking in with news of a 50 percent sales leap. Meanwhile, newcomers indicated that they had exceeded their first-year holiday targets, according to the survey.

"We've seen just beautiful numbers. What a way to celebrate our 10th Christmas season!" Fulton said.

One of the factors in the mall's high-scoring sales was an overall increase in mall traffic. The strong economy not only caused regular shoppers to open their wallets farther than ever, it also steered newcomers to the center, according to Fulton.

"Our overall traffic was up 5 percent based on parking lot counts," he explained. "If you figure that at our busiest we count between 200,000 and 220,000 cars a week here, and each vehicle carries an average of 2.2 shoppers, that's quite an astounding total," Fulton said.

Small shops and boutiques also reported that they got their piece of the Christmas spending pie, too. Greg Wisniewski, manager of Riverside Men's Shop's Williamsville store, said both the company's Buffalo and suburban shops saw strong sales.

"Both stores were just excellent. Across the board, every category sold well, there were no weak categories at all," Wisniewski said. "Even outerwear was hot, even though the weather was so mild for a lot of the pre-Christmas period."

In the Buffalo area, and around the state, stores remained busy through the close-of-business on Christmas Eve, with shoppers returning early on the morning of the 26th to take advantage of traditional deep discounts, redeem gift certificates, and make returns, retail officils said.

And according to Quaremba, despite the crowded aisles and volume-caused delays at the checkout counter, shoppers maintained a generally cheerful attitude.

"We heard a lot during our survey that consumers were upbeat and happy about shopping this year, and that certainly worked to the retailers' advantage," he said.

State merchants faced some real challenges with Internet shopping, a shortage of employees, and steep competition, but they put their best foot forward and worked hard to make sure that customers were well served, he added.

"Our industry knows that these are challenges that won't be going away any time soon," he said.

Among the hottest items for Holiday '99 were: Pokemon Game Boy and Pokemon merchandise; electronic toys; computer games; Millennium Barbie; Rock-n-Roll Elmo/Ernie; talking pro wrestler dolls; fancy dresses for millennium parties and end-of-the-century and/or millennium items (commemorative books, etc.); fleece wear; jewelry, and home electronics (especially DVD equipment).

And while retailers are looking forward to taking a breather when the post-Christmas buying, exchanging and returning activity begins to die down, they are expecting two more sales "blips" in January, according to Fulton. This first will come with folks who withdrew Y2K cash, but decide to spend their cash stash instead of redepositing it.

"It will be like that unspent vacation money that never makes it back into the account. We're going to benefit from that," he said.

The second boost will come in mid-January when the state stages what is billed as its final sales tax holiday, lifting its 4 percent sales tax on clothing and shoes priced at under $500. Most localities are expected to join in on that Jan. 15-21 tax-free period, temporarily suspending their sales tax levies.

The state's 4 percent sales tax on clothing and footwear costing up to $110 per item is currently scheduled to be permanently removed beginning March 1, 2000. Few local governments have opted to participate in the permanent tax-free plan. Neither Erie, nor Niagara counties plan to take part in the permanent tax program, but will take part in next month's week-long tax hiatus.

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