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Sales In Arizona Are Red-Hot

Cathy and Bill Seneff nearly finished their Christmas shopping on Tuesday, loading a cart full of half-off Star Wars action figures for their 7-year-old son.

"I know all the tricks," said Mrs. Seneff, 38, as she scurried to her car from the J.C. Penny outlet in Arizona Mills. "Two weeks before Christmas these exact same things are in Toys 'R Us at full price, and it's not just cheap stuff from China."

Welcome to Christmas in Arizona.

Nationwide, analysts say retailers are faring worse than expected because of value-conscious consumers and warm weather. In Arizona, retailers are basking in relatively chilly weather and a red-hot economy. They expect better than average sales in 1998, even as shoppers say they are hunting for bargains.

Seneff's 39-year-old husband said it's taken them almost a month to shop for gifts because of their "frugalness."

Meanwhile, Tina Saya scoured the stores for sale items Tuesday while Vera Jones said she started her Christmas shopping back in February to take advantage of clearance sales.

Paul Sauer, vice president and general manager of Arizona Mills, said sales at the discount outlet mall will be better than expected this year.

"The economic news is just too strong," Sauer said. "I'm a newcomer to the Valley. Here, there's a bright mental attitude and that has impacted sales. People are in a good mood."

Sierra Vista retailers are experiencing the same strong holiday season, said Gary Hill, J.C. Penny store manager. He said sales at his department store will improve by up to six percent over last year.

"We're selling a lot more underwear and basic clothing, sweaters and jackets," he said. "The cold weather came in November and December, while last year it came in October. It's chilly. Even though it's not Ohio or Michigan, it gets them in the mood."

The six Phoenix-area malls owned by Westcor Shopping Centers are seeing a five percent increase in retail sales this holiday season, said Veronica Lovesy, a Westcor representative and marketing director for Scottsdale Fashion Square.

Lovesy said Arizona's cold weather has been spurring brisk sales as people get into the Christmas spirit: a contrast to East Coast retailers who have complained warm weather has sapped their sales.

"I was in New York and it was clear to see it was so warm there. I didn't even need a jacket," she said. "Arizona doesn't depend on outerwear sales so that is not a big part of our business fourth quarter. Other states, that's what they strive on."

Holiday sales at the Tucson Mall are expected to increase 10 percent over last year, and gift certificate purchases have gone up by 50 percent, said Vicki Duncan, Tucson Mall marketing director.

"I think (sales) started a little slow with Thanksgiving weekend, primarily because the weather was unseasonably warm. That probably prompted people to stay away," she said. "Since then it's gotte a lot stronger."

Susan Hibler, who was at Fashion Square Tuesday morning, said she never shops as early as the day after Thanksgiving.

"I will not shop the weekend of Thanksgiving. That one I think is absolutely bizarre," she said. "Usually we go out Christmas Eve just because it's funny. It wouldn't be right if it's not partly insane."

Lovesy said more people like Hibler waited later in the holiday season to do their shopping. She expects sales to be strong the last 12 hours before Christmas, the time when many men hit the malls.

"We do expect all the men on Christmas Eve. That's their special day," she said.

Count Bill Seneff in. He said his wife never tells him what she wants for Christmas, which forces him to wait until the last minute.

"It takes that long to decide to know what you're going to buy. You wait in anticipation that she's going to tell you," he said as he left Arizona Mills with his wife Tuesday.

Mario Saya, a father of four, rested Tuesday mid-afternoon on a wooden bench surrounded by bags of sneakers at Arizona Mills. He said it was his first time Christmas shopping with his wife, Tina.

"I'm an inside person. I'd rather stay home," said Mario, 28. "I'm ready to go home and take a nap."

By Amanda Riddle