- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in area stores.

In October.

Retailers are pulling the “holiday sale” signs out a bit earlier and more aggressively this year with hopes of beginning the buying season earlier to boost an expected not-so-happy holiday shopping season.

“Retailers are being more cautious and, given high energy prices … they will do what they can to drive sales through promotions while trying to manage their profitability,” said Kim Picciola, a retail analyst with Morningstar Inc., an investment research firm in Chicago.

Home heating bills are expected to rise an average 32 percent across the country this winter, taking a bite out of disposable income. Retailers plan to offer deeper discounts this year to drum up holiday sales, when one-fifth of annual sales are made.

“We expect retailers to be more promotional earlier in the holiday season this year in an effort to drive store traffic and lure consumers in to make a purchase,” Mrs. Picciola said. “Retailers who can provide the best value to those consumers looking for a good deal will perform OK.”

Holiday decorations play a part in pushing early purchases. At Tysons Corner Center in McLean this week, about a dozen stores had spruced up withgarlands, Christmas trees or other decorations and some had holiday-themed packaging on products.

“The holiday decorations add to the festivities and the overall atmosphere to get people into the spirit to get their holiday shopping done,” said Patrice Duker, spokeswoman of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Does it work? Maybe.

Rebecca LaChanse of Fairfax Station this week bought holiday-scented soaps at the Tysons Corner Center Bath & Body Works store, which was decorated with twinkling lights, fake snow and snowflake-covered gift boxes.

Mrs. LaChanse bought the items because she had a coupon. But she said the holly, garlands and bows do not promote holiday cheer in October.

“I feel pressure when they’re up,” Mrs. LaChanse said. “Every year it’searlier and earlier.”

“Pretty soon we’re going to skip Halloween and go straight from the Fourth of July to Christmas,” she said.

Bath & Body Works representatives did not return phone calls for comment.

Other retailers are holding off on the nutcracker dolls and ornaments.

Nordstrom Inc. storeshave a policy to keep the holiday decorations and products packed up until the day after Thanksgiving, the unofficial start of the shopping season.

Holiday sales are expected to climb 5 percent this winter, bringing total holiday spending to $435.3 billion. Last year, holiday sales rose 6.7 percent to $414.7 billion, one of the best seasons in recent years, according to the National Retail Federation, a D.C. trade group.

“We’re going to see a good increase, but not a historically strong increase,” said NRF spokeswoman Ellen Davis. “Because last year was so strong, retailers are going to have a more difficult time achieving and building off last year’s growth.”

The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) has a more conservative estimate. The Alexandria group expects sales at chain stores — from Target to Macy’s — to increase about 3 percent to 3.5 percent.

“This holiday season, we’re not going to see consumers blowing their budgets out the window,” said Mrs. Duker of the ICSC. “There is obviously some caution out there.”

More than a quarter of online retailers plan to start holiday marketing earlier this year to thwart a weak season, according to Shop.org, a division of the NRF.

“Retailers want to get a head start on the holiday season to get customers to start thinking about the products they have, which products might be the most popular and to debut new products,” Ms. Davis said.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, plans to start its largest and most aggressive advertising campaign in history on Nov. 1, Chief Marketing Officer John Fleming said this week. Last year the company’s holiday plan to hold back on discounts in hopes of fattening sales backfired.

Kohl’s Corp. department stores are advertising a sale this weekend as “the lowest prices of the season.” Kohl’s representatives did not return calls to clarify whether the season was referring to fall or winter.

But a company spokeswoman said the store is not worried about holiday sales.

“We know our customers are selective about their disposable income … Kohl’s value position makes us an obvious choice for the money-conscious consumer,” said spokeswoman Jackie Long.

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