If you didn't absolutely have to buy that cashmere sweater or Craftsman power saw before Christmas, the wait was worth it.

From the mega-malls in America's heartland to the ritzy shops lining Madison Avenue, consumers found a bonanza of bargains Thursday as retailers slashed prices hoping to ignite some post-Christmas buying.

``It doesn't pay to buy it before Christmas, if you can get 50 percent off,'' said Melissa Williams, who braved temperatures of 22-below to get to Target discount store in Bismarck, N.D. a little after 7 a.m.

``You take a chance of not getting it, but most of the time you can get it if you really want,'' she said.

While some consumers returned unwanted gifts Thursday, many sought out deals on things they didn't get for Christmas. Discounts as much as 75 percent were spotted on everything from Christmas crafts to cordless phones.

Retailers hope a binge of after-Christmas buying will invigorate holiday sales, which for many merchants were lower than they had anticipated.

``The weekend after Thanksgiving was spectacular, but then it slowed down a bit,'' said Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation. ``They're hoping for a lot of purchases this week.''

Most retailers won't release Christmas sales figures until Jan. 2, but many said high levels of credit card debt, foul weather and five fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas hurt them this year.

At the Casual Corner women's retailer in The Empire mall in Sioux Falls, S.D., a coat and a blazer marked down 30 percent sold right after the store opened.

``The customers saw them before Christmas and they weren't on sale,'' said said Vicki Dawley, a sales associate at Casual Corner. `` So they popped in today and purchased the items they were waiting for.'

Along Manhattan's major shopping districts, nearly every store displayed sale signs: 20-70 percent off at Macy's; 10-60 percent off at Nobody Beats the Wiz electronics stores; 20-65 percent off at Bloomingdale's.

At Saks Fifth Avenue, Lisa Sheridan kept up her post-Christmas tradition _ treating herself to something ridiculously discounted.

``I'm going to check out the cashmere this year and maybe some of the designer clothes _ like DKNY _ to see what they've got,'' she said.

Many other shoppers turned their thoughts to next Christmas, picking up decorations, wrapping paper and cards which they'll then stash until next year.

That's what Ruth Moss of Zebulon, Va., had in mind when she ventured to the Hudson-Belk department store in Raleigh early Thursday.

``I could go home and be ready for next Christmas right now,'' she said, as she loaded several bags into the back of her van mostly filled with gifts for friends and relatives.

Electronics and computer stores were big slashers of prices, hoping to pick up business after one of their toughest holiday seasons.

The Staples office supply store chain in New York chopped $500 off a Hewlett-Packard color copier-printer, which ordinarily sells for $1,500. Tops, a big electronics retailer, offered $1,000 discounts on projection TVs.

Sale signs also bedecked many apparel departments and stores, as clothing merchants tried to clear space for new goods. The markdowns come despite a relatively successful season for apparel retailers.

``He doesn't fit the size I thought he fit,'' said Emma Cavender of Nitro, W.Va., who went to the Charleston Town Center to exchange some clothes she bought her husband. ``We were married 50 years a month ago, and I still don't know what size he is.''