Retailers ring in the shopping season earlier

Holiday items already fill Costco aisles in Westbury. Holiday items already fill Costco aisles in Westbury. (Oct. 1, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

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'Christmas creep," the retail phenomenon that brings sightings of Christmas trees and inflatable snowmen in late summer, has picked up its pace this year.

Independent retailers across the Island have started rolling out the holiday goods. And the biggest chains in the country are already aggressively gearing up their holiday campaigns.

On Aug. 21, Walmart announced new terms for its layaway program, and Toys R Us said it would expand a holiday price-matching policy. Kmart made the biggest splash with its Sept. 9 TV ad promoting its layaway program. The ad aired almost a month earlier than its first holiday TV ad in 2012.

Retail experts say a significant number of shoppers -- many of them transformed into price-savvy consumers during the recession -- start their holiday shopping in September and October or earlier, purchasing gifts when they see a good deal.

Frugality still in play

"The consumer is closer to where we were in 2008 and 2009, when the recession was on, than where we were in 2006 and 2007, when we were spending like there was no tomorrow," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, a Port Washington market research firm. "Frugality is still a big part of the consumer's lifestyle."

Janet Jackson of Wyandanch, a price-conscious early shopper, embraces the layaway programs retailers have been touting in holiday announcements. She finished her holiday shopping for grandchildren and nieces and nephews last month, putting just under $500 on Walmart's layaway.

"This way, no matter what they want or what it costs, they get it because I put it on layaway," said Jackson, 53, a direct caretaker for the state's mental health office. "I'm not rich, and I'm not poor. I am just somewhere in between trying to make my family happy."

In the expansion of the holiday season, merchants are responding to the lingering effects of the recession, a calendar that has Hanukkah starting early, on Nov. 27, and six fewer shopping days than last year between Black Friday (Nov. 29) and Christmas. In addition, some local retailers are still trying to make up for losses in 2012 related to superstorm Sandy, which hit Oct. 29.

Merchants have been trying for years to extend the holiday shopping season, which for some retailers can account for 20 percent to 40 percent of annual sales.

Projections for holiday spending this year are particularly dicey. The National Retail Federation, a national trade group, said Thursday it expects holiday sales in November and December to increase 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion. But it said that projection could be "in jeopardy" if the partial government shutdown lasted for weeks or months -- or should conflict over the federal debt ceiling hurt consumer confidence. ShopperTrak, a Chicago estimator of customer traffic, projects sales will slip this year to 2.4 percent growth from 3.5 percent last year.

With growth uncertain, retailers are fighting to maintain or gain market share.

Seeking 'piece of the pie'

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"They're all racing to get an existing piece of the pie," said Patricia Norins, an adviser to American Express' "Small Business Saturday," a holiday shopping event. "There's only so much of the pie that is going to be served," so retailers want to "get out of the gate as soon as possible and get in front of consumers and capture their piece of the pie."

Last year, a survey by the National Retail Federation said 41 percent of U.S. consumers began their shopping by October. Of those, about 12 percent said they had started their holiday shopping before September, according to the survey.

For these early shoppers, Kmart's September TV ad for its layaway feature makes sense, retail analysts said. Kmart, which offers both eight- and 12-week layaway contracts, said in a statement that "the advertising schedule is a reflection of this longer lead time."

Walmart also hopes to appeal to its core price-conscious consumers. The company said that, in response to consumer demand, it expanded the categories and number of items available for layaway this year to include infant toys and automotive electronics. During the layaway period, customers also apply discounts Walmart may offer later in the season and can request a price match if they see a competitor has lowered the price for the same item.

Layaway advertising could shift the flow of more general holiday advertising before Halloween, experts said.

"We expect to see this year and in future years most of these layaway ads coming early," said Jonathan Symonds, executive vice president of marketing for Ace Metrix, a Mountain View, Calif., company that evaluates advertising effectiveness. "And I also think you're going to see the net effect of pulling more holiday ads before Halloween."

Local stores don't want to be left behind.

The Nassau County Council of Chambers of Commerce plans to announce its "shop local" campaign on Tuesday, more than a month before last year's start.

"I have noticed that several big-box stores have their holiday inventory and displays set up," said Julie Marchesella, president of the council. "And that's another reason we wanted to get the announcement out there to shop local and shop early."

Emily Schiano-Porter, 48, an East Northport eBay apparel seller with 22 years' prior experience at a major retailer, began this year's holiday shopping the week after Christmas last year. She said she continues to buy throughout the year, whenever she sees a good deal. Most years her holiday shopping is done before Black Friday, the much-hyped promotional retail event the day after Thanksgiving. All her presents are wrapped by the first week of December.

"My family, like every other middle-class family, is feeling the pinch of increased health care costs and gas prices and property taxes," Schiano-Porter said. "All my purchases are well thought out, and I do watch my pennies."

She said she does much of her holiday buying at Costco, whose executives said they have been putting out holiday merchandise as early as September for years.

"I think that ultimately it's to our benefit to get in early and get out early, because we don't want to get stuck at the end of the season with the markdown scenario," said David Sherwood, Costco's director of finance and investor relations.

Reasons to extend

Other retailers want to avoid steep markdowns too, analysts said, especially after back-to-school sales growth was less than expected.

"Soft back-to-school [sales] and then weird calendar issues are playing into what could be a challenging retail environment for merchants," said Trae Bodge, RetailMeNot senior editor, "and result in pretty aggressive discounting."

An earlier start last year, however, gave Marilyn Schulman and Lynn Brey, owners of the Willy Nilly Trading Company and WillyNilly@Home in Bay Shore, a chance to see which items were selling and reorder products like the music box in the form of a vintage 1940s TV set.

"If you put items out in October, you have a fighting chance of reordering them," Schulman said. "It's a very delicate balance of having enough and having too much on Dec. 26."

Kerry Punzi, owner of The Cook's Fancy and Giftology, two gift stores in Rockville Centre, began gradually putting out holiday items at the end of September, about a month earlier than she did last year. She's still trying to recover from the dent Sandy put in her 2012 holiday sales. Her customers, many from Oceanside, Long Beach, Island Park and Freeport, were hit hard, and some are still rebuilding, she said.

"My decor didn't sell last year because my customers didn't have homes to put it in," Punzi said. Starting early is a bit of an "experiment," she said. "If I can extend my season, I am going to try."

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