5 Ways Retailers Are Trying to Snag Holiday Shopping Dollars Extra Early This Year

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Daniel Acker / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Most people like Thanksgiving to have passed before setting up Christmas decorations and jumping into winter holiday mode. For marketers, however, it’s now become standard to embrace the winter holiday mentality long before Thanksgiving—in fact, before Halloween even.

According to a new survey from Experian Marketing Services, 49% of marketers said that they will launch holiday campaigns before October 31. “Retailers have been extending the shopping seasons with promotions, post-recession, so it’s not surprising to see that nearly half of all marketers stated they would launch a holiday campaign before Halloween,” Experian general manager of global research Bill Tancer explained in a statement.

By some account, though, the latest efforts among retailers and marketers to extend the shopping season stand out even from prior years, when consumers have been subjected to Santa Claus and snowman displays around Labor Day. A recent study from ShopperTrak forecast that holiday spending will rise a mere 2.4% during the 2013 season, and explained that, beyond the usual “Christmas creep,” there are legitimate reasons why retailers are feeling extra pressure to woo shoppers early:

Retailers have a reduced window of time to capture peak holiday spending as only 25 days lie between Black Friday (Nov. 29) and Christmas this year, compared to 32 days in 2012. Typically, weekends are busy times for customers to visit stores and, unlike last year, consumers have only four (not five) full weekends to shop.

(MORE: Halloween in August? Christmas in October? This Annoying Retail Trend Is Here to Stay)

What’s more, for 2013, Hanukkah starts 11 days earlier than it did a year earlier. “Nobody can afford to procrastinate,” ShopperTrak founder Bill Martin said via press release. “Retailers must have their holiday marketing and operations ready to go when November begins, as consumers will be ready to take advantage of those deals.”

And what kinds of deals and promotions are being used as magnets to draw in shoppers even earlier than usual? Here’s a selection:

For years, layaway was written off by the vast majority of retailers as unnecessary for shoppers and a costly waste of administrative resources. But last year, layaway became a major shopping battleground among competitors such as Kmart, Walmart, and Toys R Us, with retailers one-upping each other by eliminating fees and otherwise making layaway program terms more enticing.

For the 2013 season, layaway is again being embraced by retailers—specifically, as a means to snag shopper dollars super early. The subject of Kmart’s earliest-ever holiday commercial, first shown on TV during the same week some kids started school, was the terms of the special, no-fee layaway program it introduced in early September. After receiving grief from some consumers annoyed by the extraordinarily early appearance of holiday promotions, Kmart released a statement attempting to justify Christmas promotions during barbecue season:

“Kmart is offering no service fees for new layaway purchases online or in-store between Sept. 8 and Nov. 23. Kmart offers both eight and 12 week layaway contracts, so our Shop Your Way members and customers can plan in advance in order to take advantage of layaway for holiday purchases. The advertising schedule is a reflection of this longer lead time.”

(MORE: Holiday Promotions Months Before the Holiday? Sign Us Up!)

Meanwhile, Walmart announced its layaway program in late August, with no opening fees for goods put on layaway starting September 13.

“Hot Toy” Lists—and Deals
To help out confused gift-givers—and boost sales—retailers have traditionally released lists of the toys that are most likely to put smiles on kids’ faces during the holiday season. At least that’s the theory. Considering how early “hot” toy lists are published, and how unpredictable and quickly shifting kids’ preferences can be, it’s easy to imagine a gift that’s deemed hot in September would seem like a dud under the tree on Christmas.

Nonetheless, the proliferation of hot toy lists from Toys R Us and others continues. This year, the early season toy promotions from Toys R Us include an extended return policy and cash back rewards for gift purchases made by October 31.

Price Matching
A year ago, Target and Best Buy launched guarantees to match the online prices of competitors—including Amazon—through the winter holiday shopping period. Both companies have since made price-matching policies permanent, and they were joined by Toys R Us recently.

(MORE: Price Matching R Us: Another Giant Retailer Says It’ll Match Online Prices)

While retailers hope that such policies convince shoppers that it’s safe to purchase without worrying that better prices will pop up elsewhere, the fine print typically stipulates that the customer must show proof of a lower price within seven days of the original purchase. In other words, if you purchase a holiday gift in September and it goes on sale in early November, you probably can’t expect the original retailer to match the discounted price.

Buy-Online, Pickup-in-Store
Brick-and-mortar stores have an obvious leg up on web-only retailers thanks to their physical locations, which provide shoppers a setting to inspect merchandise in person—and an outlet for buying stuff quickly, without the need to wait even for a day or two for shipping. For many shoppers, the buy-online, pickup-in-store option combines the best of both worlds, meshing the speed and efficiency of online shopping with the ability to have items in hand within hours of ordering them on the web.

Stores have been ramping up pickup options for years, and this year some retailers are kicking efforts into a higher gear. Toys R Us has begun promising that online purchases will be ready for pickup in less than one hour, compared to three hours in the past. Target, which relies on impulse purchases made by browsing shoppers more so than some of its competitors, has been late to embrace the buy-online, pickup-in-store option. But as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported, Target is in the process of making the option available at all of its 1,800 U.S. stores by Black Friday.

Actually Offering Web Shopping
Online shopping hardly seems like an innovative retail strategy. But for discount retailers like T.J. Maxx and H&M, which specialize in smaller quantities of off-price goods and/or “fast fashion” items that come and go quickly, selling via the web is pretty complicated. Nonetheless, because online sales have been deemed so important, both retailers recently launched e-retail channels, which they hope will hit their strides by the time peak holiday shopping kicks in.

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“With the holiday season coming, this is about as late as they could launch and not risk the site ‘falling over’ as a result of heavy traffic,” Paula Rosenblum, managing partner of research and advisory firm Retail Systems Research LLC, said to InternetRetailer.com of T.J. Maxx’s entrance into online sales. “Launching now gives them some time between back-to-school and the holiday season to shake out the bugs.”