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Retailers compete mightily for holiday dollars

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The battle for holiday shoppers' money has begun in earnest, with Sears announcing it will be open on Thanksgiving. Here customers wait to check out in the hardware department at a Sears store in North Olmsted, Ohio.

NEW YORK » From Sears stores open on Thanksgiving for the first time to free shipping from Walmart, the battle for holiday shoppers’ dollars has begun in earnest.

The early competition to break through shoppers’ caution about spending promises savings for those willing to buy amid an economy that’s still worrying many. It also promises convenience. Retailers are offering deals any time, anywhere their customers want, through websites, smart phones and Facebook.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that typically kicks off holiday shopping, is not only being marketed as "Black Friday week," but also, for a growing number of stores, "Black Friday month."

As for Thanksgiving Day, some retailers like Sears and Old Navy hope shoppers will head to stores after they finish their turkey feasts. On the Web, Kohl’s Corp. and Target Corp. are among many merchants dramatically stepping up deals that day, counting on that holiday to be one of the busiest days of the year online.

"Everything is faster and sooner," said Dan Grandpre, editor-in-chief of Dealnews.com, which opened an office in Dublin, Ireland, a few months ago to monitor the frenetic pace of offers, particularly during the holidays. Dealnews is based in Huntsville, Ala.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is clearly going for the jugular in the holiday retailing fight. It announced yesterday that it will offer free shipping on nearly 60,000 online items — with no minimum purchase requirement. The offer, which includes most electronics, jewelry and toys, will run through Dec. 20. Return shipping is also free, or items can be returned to a local store. However, Walmart said that the free shipping does not apply to Hawaii.

No further specifics were available.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s free offer comes on top of similarly aggressive free shipping programs from Target and the J.C. Penney Co. Walmart’s deal adds to the discounter’s Site to Store program, which lets customers buy an item online and have it shipped free to their local Walmart store for pickup.

The intense marketing is happening in a season in which shoppers are expected to spend only a little more than last year. Unemployment is still stuck close to 10 percent, and consumer confidence has been anemic for months and months.

The National Retail Federation expects a 2.3 percent increase in spending to $447.1 billion. That would fall short of the 10-year historic average of 2.5 percent, according to the retail trade group.

Online, the prospects are brighter. Online research firm comScore Inc. expects anywhere from 7 percent to 9 percent growth compared with a year ago, when business was up 4 percent over the previous year, according to its calculations. About 10 percent of holiday sales are made online, according to Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru.

Kmart said it’s letting customers who buy items online pick up purchases on the same day at more than 600 locations. The retailer, owned by Sears Holdings Corp., also announced customers can now buy items through the Kmart2go mobile website or smart-phone applications and select in-store pickup.

The apps also can be used in the store for product information. (Kmart officials were not available to confirm whether Hawaii stores are among the 600 locations.)


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