US stores begin battle for holiday dollars

AFP, WASHINGTON

Mon, Nov 25, 2013 - Page 15

Black Friday, the pinnacle of the US shopping year, will be on a Thursday this year. And even earlier. Desperate for consumer dollars, US chain stores, some fighting for survival, are upping the ante this holiday shopping season with cutthroat discounts offered earlier than ever and ever-longer opening hours.

The prize is not massive profits. The goal is survival by getting a big enough piece of the US$600 billion that consumers could spend.

Giants like Walmart, Target and Best Buy, and online Goliath Amazon.com, are squaring off with deals launched a week before the traditional start of the Thanksgiving-Christmas shopping season.

Eyes are particularly on two department store chains that once ruled the holiday market — Sears and JC Penney — both wrestling for their corporate lives.

“It’s going to be a very intense shopping season,” with one less weekend than last year between the two big holidays, said Chris Christopher, director of consumer markets research at IHS Global Insight.

Macy’s chief financial officer Karen Hoguet said that the holiday shopping season will be “shorter and more intense” this year.

“We expect a heightened sense of urgency among customers,” she added.

Black Friday got its name from the shopping frenzy that accompanied early store openings and sharp discounts on popular merchandise on the day after Thanksgiving — which falls on the fourth Thursday of November.

However, in recent years, some stores moved their openings to the evening of Thanksgiving, eroding what some saw as the sanctity of a national holiday, for both shoppers and employees.

Everyone is joining the fray this year, opening their doors from late afternoon on Thanksgiving Day on Thursday and promising to stay open all night and throughout Friday.

Going to the extreme, Sear’s Kmart chain will open at 6am on Thanksgiving Day and remain open for 41 hours straight.

Underscoring the tenacious fight for shoppers, some retailers are already delivering their ultradiscounts a week in advance.

Walmart upped the ante by kicking off its sales on Friday last week, with a list of popular toys and electronics marked down as much as 50 percent. On Black Friday itself, it will offer a 32-inch LED television for US$98.

“Black Friday is our Super Bowl, and we plan to win,” said chief marketing officer Duncan Mac Naughton.

More than ever before, the battle will take place both online and in stores. Battered by the success of Amazon, which only sells over the Internet, the brick-and-mortar retailers are now online in force and offering their deals however and wherever consumers will take them.

Electronics retailer Best Buy is promising to discount its way through Christmas, Dec. 25, and will refund the difference if someone pays more for items whose prices were cut again afterward.

“We need to be in the game. So that’s what we’re going to do,” chief executive Hubert Joly said.

The stakes are highest for JC Penney and Sears. Penney, the 1,100-store chain that has been gasping to survive, stayed shut on Thanksgiving Day last year and lost out hugely.

This year, they are not making the same mistake. The stores will open at 8pm on Thursday and stay open through Friday night.

“We are fully prepared to execute our aggressive plans for the holidays,” chief executive Mike Ullman said.

Christopher forecast spending to rise 3.2 percent from last year, for a total of about US$600 billion.