Christmas in August as retailers rev up holiday offers
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Even before the school bells are ringing for many families, retailers are sounding sleigh bells.
With 120-plus shopping days left, stores are already talking up their holiday offers.
Toys R Us announced Wednesday that it would expand its price-match guarantee to include online retailers including Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Target.com and BestBuy.com, among others. The aim, according to the release, "Removing any doubt before holiday shopping begins in earnest that customers are receiving the best available prices."
Also on Wednesday, Wal-Mart announced it will drop the $5 fee it charged shoppers in previous years to open a layaway account. Shoppers can begin putting eligible items on layaway for the holidays on Sept. 13, with the retailer's Facebook fans gaining access two days earlier.
"All year long, but especially during the holidays, our customers need a low price leader," said the retail giant's chief merchandising and marketing officer Duncan Mac Naughton in a statement. "This year, we are committed to doing everything we did last year to help Americans save money—plus more. More savings, more layaway items and our commitment that they can give their families a great Christmas on a budget."
You might not be feeling the time pressure yet, but retailers are. Success in the fourth quarter is often key to annual performance, and in tough economic times the competition for customer dollars is fierce, said Dave Cheatham, managing principal of Velocity Retail Group.
"Retailers are determined not to be left on the sidelines," he said. "They're reinventing the rules on how to do holiday shopping."
And there is some basis for the Christmas-in-August approach. "We do know that 40 percent of holiday shoppers say they begin shopping before Halloween," said Kathy Grannis, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. If it draws in even a few extra customers, early action can be a big advantage in a competitive season, she said.
Shoppers, however, can keep calm and carry on—and ignore the retail ho-ho-hoing for a few more weeks. "This is not a big time for toy sales. Pool clearance, maybe?" said Edgar Dworsky, founder of consumer advocacy site ConsumerWorld.org. Deals tend to pick up in early October, he said, which gives price-hunting shoppers a roughly six-week reprieve.
Or longer. "Really, Nov. 1 is when the early sales kick in that are worth paying attention to," said Brent Shelton, a spokesman for deal site FatWallet.com.
Amazon.com and other retailers offer some standout sales daily as Black Friday approaches. Last year, Best Buy and Sears offered select loyal shoppers early access to actual Black Friday sales—and more retailers are likely to follow suit this year, he said.
But tuning out the early marketing doesn't mean shoppers should totally ignore the ghost of Christmas future.
Budgeting is always smart holiday prep, and there's still some time to stash away extra cash for purchases, said Mary Hunt, author of "Debt-Proof Your Christmas." (In 2012, the NRF estimated shoppers would spend about $750, on average.) "You don't want to have debt to pay off next year," she said.
—By CNBC.com's Kelli B. Grant. Follow her on Twitter @KelliGrant.
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