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Bargain-hunting shoppers rushing in for treasures Last-minute sales and mild weather draw customers to local malls and shops

For most shoppers and retailers, the holiday shopping season kicks off on the day after Thanksgiving. But for more than a few area residents, the fun is just beginning.

"I see it like the two-minute warning in a Bills game," said Dan Pascarella of Niagara Falls. "Time is running out, and I have to score. But I have a game plan."

Pascarella opened his holiday 2006 play book for the first time on Tuesday morning, arriving at Fashion Outlets Niagara Falls USA with list in hand and a shopping strategy that would take him to Wal-Mart, Circuit City and the Boulevard Mall by day's end.

"Look out Santa. Here comes Dan," the adrenaline-charged gift hunter announced.

The nation's retail industry expects to see a lot of "Dans" today and tomorrow. As of Dec. 18, nearly 33 million people, or 15.4 percent of shoppers, had yet to buy a single gift, according to the National Retail Federation.

Meanwhile, the average buyer had completed about half of his or her present list.

Procrastination and bargain-seeking will make today the single busiest shopping day of the holiday season.

In a survey conducted Dec. 11 and 12 by the Retail Council of New York State, two-thirds of sellers said they expected their strongest sales volume of the season to occur over the last three days of this week. It's a trend retailers have fueled in recent years by progressive discounting, said Ted Potrikus, the council's executive vice president and director of government relations.

"It used to be, you had a big sale on Black Friday and then another one to close things out. Now, to stay competitive and keep the momentum going, they keep cutting the price, and consumers react by hanging back to get the best deals," Potrikus said.

"If you want to get a parking place at the mall [today], you better already be there," he added.

Nationally, retail analysts predict a similar scenario. The stage is set for an "explosive, very exciting day," said Tara Weiner, a managing partner at Deloitte & Touche USA's Philadelphia regional office.

This year's Super Saturday -- the Saturday before Christmas and often the year's busiest shopping day -- "will feel a whole lot like Black Friday," Weiner said.

>Braving the crowds

Monica Kim of Welland, Ont., who visited the Walden Galleria and Niagara Falls outlet mall earlier this week, has planned to get up extra early today to do more cross-border shopping. She said the strong Canadian dollar -- averaging 86 cents U.S. -- and the variety of stores draws her to Buffalo, rather than to Toronto.

"We'll go into the city and shop on Elmwood Avenue and have a long lunch. We'll spend too much and have a wonderful time," Kim said.

Jasmine Thomas of Cheektowaga also planned to brave the crowds today, with her mother and daughter in tow.

"We started on the day after Thanksgiving and we'll finish on Christmas Eve. The prices are too good to stop," Thomas said.

Cash registers will take a breather on Christmas Day, but they are expected to be ringing bright and early on Tuesday and continue through New Year's weekend.

A few big name retailers are pulling "all nighters" to make sure they wring as much disposable income out of shoppers' wallets as possible before the 25th.

L.L. Bean's four stores in New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia are staying open about 189 hours straight through Christmas Eve. A few Macy's stores in New York City are also keeping their doors open until Santa loads up the sleigh.

Locally, several malls are getting 7 a.m. starts, with a handful of retailers opening even earlier. Sears, Roebuck and Co. planned to be open today from 5 a.m. to midnight.

Meanwhile, in cyberspace, Best Buy is dangling a new offer: if shoppers order merchandise by 3 p.m. Sunday on Bestbuy.com, they can pick up their order in-store before the store closes at 5 p.m.

>How stores will fare

In the end, what's been a strong season, with a bang-up finale in the making, is expected to lift overall holiday season sales across the United States anywhere from nearly 3 percent to more than 5 percent above 2005's record $434.5 million.

Average weekly sales for December, compared with 2005, are up 4.3 percent, approaching projections for 5 percent sales growth, according to the Chicago-based research company ShopperTrak RCT Corp.

"The question isn't whether the holiday season is going to be strong but could it have been stronger," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation, which is sticking to its projection of 5 percent growth in total holiday sales over a year ago.

America's Research Group, based in South Carolina, pegs the rise at 2.7 percent.

Locally, 62 percent of Western New York retailers responding to the Retail Council's most recent survey pegged their sales at or above 2005 levels, with the biggest selling days still ahead.

"Nobody is complaining, which is a very good sign," Potrikus said.

But the question that remains to be answered is whether the generous discounting that spurred many of those sales has led to profits, as well as volume. Clearly, winners and losers already have emerged.

Deep discounting of flat-panel TVs led to a buying surge, as well as a profit blow to Best Buy Co. and Circuit City Stores. Even Wal-Mart's profit star has failed to twinkle.

Luxury stores' business has been sparkling as well-heeled shoppers are showing no restraint for must-have fashion and jewelry items. Other chains and independents have stuck to their promotional calendar, keeping profits intact so far and refusing to buckle under pressures from shoppers holding out for the best bargain.

And then there's the weather, which hasn't been exactly "holiday-like" over the past month. While the lack of cold and snow in the Buffalo area, and in much of the United States, has allowed shopping to continue uninterrupted, it might have been too much of a good thing.

"It cuts both ways," Potrikus said. "Dry roads make it easy to get there. But when it's 45 degrees, they don't want to buy all the sweaters, winter coats and ski gear that's on the shelves."

He described the ideal weather for holiday shopping as "32 degrees and 8 inches of fluffy white snow in the backyard," with "ice-free roads and sidewalks."

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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