No need to wait for holiday shopping

The holiday shopping season was once a game of retail chicken, as shoppers delayed buying in hopes that stores would drop prices the longer they held out.

Extremists even waited to buy until after Christmas, when retailers slashed prices on items nobody else wanted. But now the longer shoppers wait, the more likely they are to miss out.

This year, retailers are once again ratcheting up the holiday deals weeks before Christmas — a trend that began with fervor at the onset of the recession in 2008 — as they compete for budget-conscious shoppers and try to prevent too much leftover inventory at the end of the season. The early deals are more aggressive than ever, analysts said.

"This is one of the first years I've said it's probably good to buy early," said Jeff Green, a Phoenix-based retail consultant. "The week before Christmas, retailers will be out of some product."

The holiday period is important for retailers because they make a large part of the year's profits from shoppers who crowd stores to buy gifts for family and friends. The day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, was traditionally the start of the holiday shopping season. But retailers have already begun offering the doorbuster deals typical of that day.

Walmart, for instance, began weekly deals on toys and other products last month. While many consumers were rushing to stores buying candy for Halloween, Sears used last weekend to begin "Black Friday Now" deals. Kmart and Best Buy began specials Friday. Toys R Us and Target have already introduced their toy catalogs with coupons. Target will also offer deals the week leading up to Black Friday.

"While we have offered guests the pre-Thanksgiving ads in years past, it is much more robust this year," said Jessica Carlson, a spokeswoman for Target. "We understand guests' shopping habits are changing, and we really try to provide guests what they want at great values when they want them."

While economists say the country is no longer in a recession, financial uncertainty and the high jobless rate are causing many people to continue to pinch pennies. Most are looking for sales and bargains, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation.

One bright spot for retailers is that consumers are expected to spend a little more this year, even if cautiously. Sales are expected to increase a moderate 2.3 percent to $447 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. While that growth remains slightly lower than the 10-year average holiday sales increase of 2.5 percent, it would be a marked improvement from last year's 0.4 percent increase and the 3.9 percent holiday sales decline retailers reported in 2008.

Early sales are a way for retailers to compete for the few dollars shoppers are willing to spend. They're also a way to appeal to those who don't like the mania of Black Friday shopping.

"It's very competitive out there," said Pat Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "They're trying to drive traffic into their stores so they can get some sort of predictability on sales."

Scott Tavegia, chief operating manager for Best Buy in Towson, said there is a balancing act to deciding when to start holiday sales. The electronics retailer didn't want to start too soon — say, at Halloween — and cause consumer burnout.

But the store did start Friday with holiday sales on laptops, Blu-ray disc players and a Sony PSP. The retailer will offer specials throughout the season, including the week of Thanksgiving, for those who don't want to brave the crowds and lines on Black Friday.

"As a retailer, you always have to look at market trends," Tavegia said. "You have to look at how you can win the holidays."

Retailers are offering perks besides bargains that will attract shoppers. Toys R Us introduced a Christmas Savers Club over the summer that allows shoppers to set aside money on a store card toward purchases. Sears has extended layaway from eight weeks to 12 weeks on many items to lure budget-conscious shoppers.

"When the economy turned, layaway was very important for people to be able to afford a holiday," said Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Sears and Kmart. "As people started to shop early, the feedback was they wanted more doorbuster deals. They were saying, 'Don't make us wait until Thanksgiving, because we're trying to budget.'"

Jeff and Liang Brown visited Sears recently to "window" shop for holiday gifts for each other. Jeff Brown was trying out treadmills that he expects his wife will buy him. The early sales won't necessarily entice them to buy earlier, but the couple said they wouldn't turn down an exceptionally good price.

"I shop every weekend, so I'm always looking for deals," Liang Brown said.

Karen Griffey lost her job three years ago and is now unemployed and working toward her GED. The 46-year-old, who lives in Columbia, said any early sales that can help her budget her money would be helpful this holiday season. She said she will do just about all her shopping at Sears because it has layaway and lots of sales. Last week, she put a scooter on layaway for her 10-year-old son.

Janet Blankenship, 48, shops early every year, so she likes that the deals are also being offered earlier. The cook for a day care center buys gifts for 16 grandchildren.

"No Black Friday for me," Blankenship said while looking at toys in Sears at the Mall in Columbia recently. "I always look for sales before that."

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