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Retailers booming with bargain hunters

Cash registers rang up sales Monday not just returns -- as bargain shoppers flooded area malls and stores on the first full shopping day after the long Christmas holiday weekend.

Retailers reported a booming business, as shoppers from all over Western New York and southeastern Ontario pursued post-holiday sales they said were better than what was available just days before.

"They must be OK, because my wife's a pretty frugal shopper. She knows when something's a pretty good price," said Pat Gabriel, 50, of Grimsby, Ont., who came with his wife and their three teenagers to the Boulevard Mall in Amherst. "According to my wife, it was a good deal."

Shoppers came armed with gift cards, items to exchange or return, and deals in their sights, as they spent hours going from store to store.

Many emerged with multiple bags in hand and smiles on their faces, as they searched for their cars in packed parking lots. "I haven't been to this mall in years," said Judy Farmer of Marilla, who was shopping with her 13-year-old grandson, John MacLeod. "I'm more impressed with the number of people that are out and about. It's a good sign."

And that was after an equally busy day-after-Christmas on Sunday, considered the biggest "return" day of the year. "[Sunday] was an amazing day in terms of traffic. It certainly looked like the registers were cranking," said Russell Fulton, general manager of Eastern Hills Mall in Clarence, and a 24-year retail veteran.

"It was crazy. I was very impressed I'm a happy mall manager."

The Christmas holiday was over, the workweek had started, and the economy was still sluggish, but judging by Monday's crowds, consumers never got the memo.

"We're definitely busy now," said Betsey Bonvissuto, marketing director for the Boulevard Mall. "A lot of people are holding out for those after-Christmas bargains and wanting to get the most out of their dollars, so they're waiting until everything is on sale."

With the national economy still struggling to recover from the deepest downturn since the Great Depression, retailers are counting on the holiday season to boost their sales for the year.

The National Retail Federation predicts spending from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31 will reach $451.5 billion, up 3.3 percent over last year. That forecast was upgraded earlier this month based on a robust November. That would be the biggest increase since 2006, and the largest total since a record $452.8 billion in 2007.

Strong after-Christmas sales could make this year the biggest holiday sales period of all time. MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse, which monitors all transactions, including cash, was to release figures through Dec. 24 late Monday.

After-Christmas sales make up about 15 percent of holiday sales. "Consumers have not been suffering from a lack of spending power; they've just been missing the confidence to use it," said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz. "Consumers have certainly shown they shouldn't be counted out this holiday season."

Holiday sales have increasingly been front-loaded into the period after Thanksgiving and leading up to Christmas, but the days after the holiday are equally important for cementing final numbers and ensuring a profitable season. According to the trade group, after-Christmas sales are typically designed to move winter merchandise off shelves to make room for spring merchandise, so clearance sales are usually the biggest attraction for this week.

"Our department stores have major clearance sales going on now, and they're very well-advertised, so it's across the board in general," Bonvissuto said. "It was very busy, [with] a lot of Canadian shoppers as well, as we would have expected. So it was a good day."

And indeed, both shoppers and mall managers agreed that stores were busier after the holiday than even on Christmas Eve, normally a big day for last-minute shoppers.

For Amie Foss, a 20-year-old college student from Alden who was shopping with her college friend Katie Meister, 22, of Tonawanda, dealing with the crowds was worth it.

"It's worth it coming out today and dealing with everybody. It seems like the deals are better now than they were Black Friday," she said. "It's busier now than it was on Christmas Eve."

That started Sunday, as shoppers rushed in to stores to cash in their gift cards and exchange unwanted items.

"My surprise was that Christmas Eve, I expected the craziness, and it was just OK, where [Sunday] became the craziness," Fulton said. "But I also attribute a lot of that to the gift cards."

Both store and mallwide gift cards were big factors Monday. "The really good thing about a gift card is we tend to spend more than the amount our gift card has on it," Bonvissuto said. "And the sales are so great now, so it certainly adds value to your card to be able to spend it on items that are on sale."

That's a big part of why Laurel Jennings, 45, of Middleport, came out shopping with daughters Lindsey, 23, and Samantha, 20: They had $25 gift cards from Hot Topics, Sears and Borders. And they ended up buying more than what they came for, after spending a few hours in the mall.

"They've got a lot of nice deals in Bath and Body Works," Laurel Jennings said. "We all came out with bags from them."

e-mail: jepstein@buffnews.com

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