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Stores Take Christmas In July More Seriously

By Emma L. Carew
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A small display of snow-topped villages and ornaments sits nestled between the mattress and hardware departments at the Sears store in Manassas. Next week, Toys R Us stores in the area are inviting children to decorate Christmas cards and slurp away on candy canes while their parents shop 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 exactly what to purchase. About 40 percent of holiday shoppers have made up their mind 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 NRF 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 inventory levels. 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 the local Sears stores, and one of 372 nationwide, to display the collectibles with signs urging customers to visit the Web site.

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

Starting Sunday, Toys R Us will discount items such as the Hannah Montana Malibu Beach House and the newest version of Guitar Hero. Spokeswoman Jennifer Albano said in an e-mail that the sale is to give parents the opportunity to purchase their children's holiday gifts "at prices usually expected during the holiday season."

On July 25, an in-store promotion will invite children and their parents for a day of shopping, holiday-themed games and crafts.

For 20 years, Hallmark 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-colored countdown displays in stores.

The term "Christmas in July" is not new, Norris-Howser said, but this year especially consumers are adapting Christmas shopping to their economic situations.

"They're not sure they'll have a job in a couple of months," she said. "This kind of gives them the nudge to start thinking about Christmas earlier than they would have in the past."

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