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Retailers slash holiday prices early to lure customers

Shoppers take advantage of big sales at the

Shoppers take advantage of big sales at the J.C. Penney store at the South Shore Mall in Bay Shore on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014. J.C. Penney, like several other stores, is not waiting for Black Friday to start holiday sales. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Black Friday is morphing into Black November.

Major retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores and P.C. Richard & Son are moving back holiday season discounts by almost a month as they compete with online giants Amazon and eBay -- and with one another.

This year, many are already offering widespread deals at deep discounts like those they offer on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year, and Cyber Monday, three days later, have typically signaled the holiday shopping kickoff. More recently, growing numbers of stores began opening on Thanksgiving Day.

But this year more retailers with stores on Long Island already have begun to offer what retailers and analysts call "pre-Black Friday" deals, at steep discounts. Among those retailers are Sears, Office Depot/OfficeMax, Staples and Dick's Sporting Goods.

"Retailers can't wait to get into the action," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for Port Washington-based market research firm NPD Group. "Retailers don't want to be beat to the punch by online or other store retailers."

The promotion-heavy holiday season means consumers will have more time to take advantage of sales, but not necessarily have more dollars to spend. "If every year I have been grooming you to buy on sales, why would you buy regular price?" Cohen said.

Competition for deals

Behind the early sales is a combination of intense competition for consumers' holiday dollars -- online and on the street -- against a backdrop of stagnant middle-class wages.

"We really are seeing that budgets are tight and people are looking for deals," said Sheri Petras, CEO of Ann Arbor, Michigan-based CFI Group, which provides customer feedback insight through analytics. "While Black Friday is an event for some people, for others it is a necessity because they have a limited budget."

Petras expects shoppers to respond. "More than 25 percent are going to shop earlier" than last year, with some already having begun in October, she said. "It bodes well for retailers. That leaves a whole month and a half for impulse purchasing."

The National Retail Federation forecasts a year-over-year 4.1 percent holiday sales increase to $616.9 billion for November and December, with the average person spending $804.42, up almost 5 percent from last year's $767.27. Online sales, which are included in the prediction, are forecast to grow 8 percent to 11 percent over last holiday season, to as much as $105 billion.

Also contributing to the push for earlier sales: The traditional holiday shopping season, which accounts for about 20 percent of the retail industry's annual sales, this year has 26 days between Black Friday and Christmas, one more day than last year, though five less than in 2012.

To be sure, Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Thanksgiving Day will remain the most popular shopping holidays.

"Some of the deepest discounts still will be on Black Friday and Cyber Monday," NRF spokeswoman Kathy Grannis said. "We knew going into the season that retailers were going to be promotional to try to get customers' attention. They are dropping prices and getting people ready for the holiday time frame."

Shoppers are drawn to early deals. About one in four consumers intends to complete holiday shopping by Black Friday, according to online coupon provider RetailMeNot. And some 39 percent of respondents to a U.S. survey by eBay said they will start their Christmas shopping early in November. Earlier sales allow shoppers to pay less while avoiding crowds on Black Friday.

Shopping surprises

Still, some consumers have been taken by surprise by the early deals.

This month, retired teacher Audrey Goldfeder, of Hicksville, who never shops on Black Friday, said she purchased a 50-inch LED flat-screen television from Walmart.com for $548, only to find a 50-inch television at P.C. Richard & Son in Plainview for $398 through what the company calls "employee pricing." Goldfeder, who wanted a television for her living room, said outside the P.C. Richard store she would cancel her Walmart order.

She hadn't expected the early discount. "I always went to P.C. Richard," she said. "They have much better deals in here. You are getting service."

The pressure on brick-and-mortar retailers from online sellers is intense. Amazon started on Nov. 1 with two daily deals on holiday merchandise, rivaling the discounts found on Cyber Monday. The promotion will run through Dec. 22.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the biggest retailer in the United States, discounted 20,000 items on Nov. 1 and then rolled out on Nov. 3 its 24-hour holiday cyber savings event, featuring 15 online deals typically reserved for Black Friday, up from seven last year.

"For us it's all about the customers and being there for them all season long," Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jaeme Laczkowski said. "It is not all about Black Friday."

Office Depot and OfficeMax, which merged in November 2013 under the name Office Depot Inc., are offering early Black Friday deals through Nov. 15. "Every Monday is Cyber Monday" discounts started on Nov. 3 and will continue through the month. Deals include a Dell Inspiron laptop computer for $279.99, regularly priced at $479.99.

Special sale events

For the first time, from 6 to 9 p.m. on Sunday, Sears' "Family & Friends" event will feature apparel, appliances, tools and footwear at Black Friday pricing, plus an additional 5 percent to 15 percent event discount. Discount items will be online at sears.com starting Saturday night until Tuesday at 10 a.m.

Staples will, for the first time, offer two weeks of Black Friday deals, starting Nov. 16 with its "Week of Black Friday for Business" promotion, plus savings through Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

J.C. Penney built promotional efforts leading up to Black Friday with "Our Biggest Sale of Them All," which runs until Saturday, offering items such as coats, jackets, boots, fleece and flannel sheets discounted 50 percent to 60 percent.

"It's important to demonstrate early in the season that J.C. Penney is a destination for style and value," spokeswoman Daphne Avila said. "If customers are happy with what they find during our Biggest Sale of Them All, they are more likely to return for Black Friday shopping."

Multiple strategies

Target has begun to offer free shipping for the first time on online orders for the holidays, through Dec. 20.

To compete with the national retailers, Farmingdale-based P.C. Richard & Son started offering customers employee pricing on Nov. 2 on appliances and televisions.

"This is the first time we started it so early," said Gregg Richard, president and CEO of the electronics giant with more than 65 stores in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. "Last year we started two weeks before Black Friday. This time is almost four weeks [before]. We are getting aggressive and trying to pick up some of the business earlier where people don't have to wait, get frustrated and disappointed when a product runs out."

Like last year, some retailers -- including Macy's, Kohl's, Kmart, Sears, Staples, J.C. Penney, Target and Wal-Mart -- will open stores on Thanksgiving Day. Many will open their doors even earlier than last year and extend their hours, to try to capture what would otherwise be online purchases on Turkey Day.

"People are looking to make new traditions," said Trae Bodge, senior lifestyle editor and consumer spending expert at RetailMeNot. "They eat together, and then they go shopping together."

Consumers looking to save should also consider shopping this weekend, said Janine Nebons, general manager for Tanger Outlets in Riverhead. The weekend around Veterans Day, which is Tuesday this year, is "the best-kept secret," she said, adding national brands will have items at 40-50 percent off. "There are no giant lines, you don't have to get up in the middle of the night and come out and fight the crowds. It is all about your style and the thrill of the hunt."

"Strategies like earlier Black Friday sales are all ways to take a piece of the pie and incentivize consumers to shop with them instead of their competition," said Bodge of RetailMeNot. She added the categories with the deepest discounts are electronics, apparel, health and beauty.

Still, some analysts say shifting the focus away from the excitement of Black Friday is shortsighted. The push to offer deep discounts earlier in November may backfire, said Ken Burke, founder and CEO of MarketLive, an e-commerce platform. In a similar way, he said, brick-and-mortar stores' opening on Thanksgiving has driven shoppers online.

Launching sales early "is bad for the industry" because it may dilute Black Friday's significance and, therefore, its sales, said Burke, who added that his customers are offering sales before Cyber Monday and even expanding into Cyber Week. "There is a method to the madness that has been created. It's like Apple announcing a new product. There is a reason Black Friday happens. It works."

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