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Christmas already showing up in stores

July 30, 2009|Emma L. Carew | Carew writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — A small display of snow-topped villages and ornaments sits nestled between the mattress and hardware departments at the Sears store in Manassas, Va. And Toys R Us stores in the area were inviting children to decorate cards and nibble on candy canes while their parents shopped Christmas sales.

Yes, it's July, but some stores have decided that to get ahead of the poor economy they need to start now on the holiday shopping season.

Nick White, a consultant in the Gerson Lehrman Group network, called the strategy a good bet for the struggling retail industry.

"No one wants to be hit with Christmas songs and nutcrackers when they walk into the front door of stores," White said.

But, he added, customers are realizing they'll be spending less for Christmas this year and are planning early what to buy. About 40% of holiday shoppers have made up their minds about big-ticket purchases in early fall, he said.

Usually, retailers don't start pushing holiday shopping until early November, said Ellen Davis, vice president of the National Retail Federation. But now retailers are trying to avoid what happened last year, when holiday sales declined for the first time since the organization began tracking them in the early 1990s.

"Retailers had far more inventory than they needed, so they were forced to discount heavily and in some cases give items away with a purchase," Davis said.

As early as January, Davis said, retailers were planning their special promotions and adjusting their inventories. The push for layaway will continue this year, she said.

"People are looking for ways to spend money without having to buy on credit," Davis said. "Layaway makes a lot of sense right now."

Sears and Kmart, which stirred up interest in layaway last year, are trying to remind customers of that option with the "Christmas Lane" villages and ornaments. The Manassas store is one of 372 stores nationwide to display the collectibles with signs urging customers to visit the website.

There, shoppers can buy the holiday collectibles on layaway until July 25, said Natalie Norris-Howser, director of public relations for Sears Holdings Corp.

Toys R Us this month began discounting items such as the Hannah Montana Malibu Beach House and the newest version of Guitar Hero. Spokeswoman Jennifer Albano said the sale aimed to give parents the opportunity to purchase their children's holiday gifts "at prices usually expected during the holiday season."

At an in-store promotion Saturday, families were invited for a day of shopping, holiday-themed games and crafts.

For 20 years, Hallmark Cards Inc. has reserved the second weekend in July for unveiling about half of its holiday collection of keepsake ornaments.

Collectors generate buzz about the new pieces among themselves, said spokeswoman Deidre Mize. The company launched major advertising efforts this year, beginning in February, trying to reach its reward customers through e-mail and an online countdown, in addition to large Christmas-themed countdown displays in stores.

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