Online holiday shopping war begins

Put away the pumpkins and bring out the stockings.

Wal-Mart declared the holiday shopping season open by kicking off a selection of online deals Friday, nearly a month ahead of its usual Thanksgiving schedule. The offers, called “Early Bird Online Specials,” included discounts on TVs, tablets and toys usually reserved for Black Friday. (A 42-inch JVC television for $300 had already sold out online by 10 a.m.)

Wal-Mart’s move is the latest sign that retailers are trying to make the most of a shortened holiday season through early promotions and aggressive marketing. There are six fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year.

“We chose November 1 because, historically, we see a spike in online traffic the day after Halloween,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Ravi Jariwala.

But Wal-Mart is not alone. A slew of major retailers announced early holiday discounts this week.

Target said its “Price Match Policy” — where it matches competitor’s prices for certain items — launched Friday as usual, but will last longer this year. Toys R Us unveiled offers for loyalty program customers, including a pre-Black Friday deal that would give shoppers access to discounts two days before the event. Last month, Macy’s, J.C. Penney and other stores have said they will open on Thanksgiving Day for the first time.

Apart from facing a short holiday season, retailers have to convince Americans to open their wallets in a gloomy economy. Consumer confidence took a plunge last month, following the government shutdown and a weak jobs report.

The back-to-school shopping season was lackluster for retailers, and shoppers are expected to remain cautious this holiday season. Free shipping, online deals and personalized offers are some of the ways they will try to make up for it, analysts say.

Holiday sales are forecast to rise nearly 4 percent this year, up from 3.5 percent in 2012, according to the National Retail Federation. Online sales are expected to be 15 percent higher than last year.

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