Holiday-season sales are crucial for retailers across the board, since they represent the industry's biggest quarter for sales and profit.
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, said last week that it will open its big Black Friday promotions in toys, games and apparel at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, two hours earlier than last year. The retailer cited customer demand as the reason for pushing up the sales times.
Wal-Mart's closely watched electronics deals will also be available earlier, at 10 p.m. instead of midnight, featuring promotions such as a 60-inch Vizio LED TV for $688, a $310 savings.
Wal-Mart also said that for the first time it will guarantee pricing and availability before Christmas on three electronics items -- the 16GB Apple iPad 2 with Wi-Fi for $399, which includes a $75 Wal-Mart gift card; the Emerson 32-inch 720p LCD TV for $148; and the LG Blu-ray Player for $38 -- for all shoppers who are in line between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m., even if the store sells out of its stock.
"Wal-Mart is positioned well for the holidays," analyst Joe Feldman of Telsey Advisory Group told MarketWatch. "We like the company's approach."
Sears Holdings Corp. will open its namesake chain at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, ahead of its normal opening on Black Friday. Toys R Us stores will open at the same time; the first 200 shoppers in line at each Toys R Us store Thanksgiving night will get a free goody bag. Target Corp. announced Monday its stores would open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
Following the footsteps of Macy's and Nordstrom Inc., Kohl's also said it's testing whether it can fulfill and ship online orders directly from its stores and expects the initiative to be "very beneficial" come next holiday. For Macy's and Nordstrom, that option is part of their online strategy this holiday season, analysts said.
"The beauty of the whole thing is you have incremental inventory without taking the incremental inventory risk," which leads to profit-eroding discounts, said JPMorgan analyst Matthew Boss in an interview. "It helps you turn your inventory risk."
Getting the online piece right is crucial for retailers as more spending shifts to that channel, especially with the popularity of mobile devices. Forrester on Thursday said it expects U.S. online sales this holiday season to jump 15 percent to $68.4 billion with the average U.S. shopper spending an estimated $419 online, a 12 percent boost from last year.
Retailers also are trying to preempt and combat the phenomenon of shoppers using their smartphones to comparison shop and use stores as so-called showrooms. Best Buy Co. and Target Corp., for instance, said they will match prices with select online retailers this holiday season. Toys R Us, which unveiled a hot-toy reservation feature this holiday, requires that reservation be made in person in stores.
Chains also are trying to turn physical stores into their advantage and be proactive with smartphone-toting shoppers. Online coupon site RetailMeNot, which originally started as a site featuring coupons for online shopping, is working with retailers to "aggressively focus on in-store coupons," said John Faith, the site's senior vice president of mobile.
For this holiday, it's setting up a location-based technology at more than 500 top-selling malls that will directly feed various store coupons to shoppers' mobile devices.
A significant portion of consumers who have downloaded its mobile shopping app use it to look for in-store coupons while they are inside stores, he said.
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