- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 23, 2017

Pre-dawn store openings. Rows of shelves overstocked with marked-down items. Masses of crazed shoppers. Black Friday is still the unofficial start of the holiday retail season, but discounts starting as early as Nov. 1 have taken the edge off a normally anxious shopping day.

“The reality is the season has already begun,” said Brian Dodge, spokesman for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “If you haven’t started shopping yet, you’re already missing out. There’s deals out there.”

An estimated 164 million people are expected to shop in stores or online from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, according to an analysis by the National Retail Federation, but half of Americans say they have a head start on buying gifts.

Mr. Dodge stressed that the ever-changing retail industry is trying to focus on the individual customer experience.

“Each year, we evolve as an industry, and we’re reaching this point of really ultrapersonalized shopping, where retailers are trying to meet individual customers where they want to shop — whether that’s on their smartphone, on their website or in stores,” he said.

Retailers already have been rolling back prices and offering deep discounts — and have made commitments to do so further into the season.

“Discounts promoting holiday gifts go all the way to Dec. 23,” said Ana Serafin Smith, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. “It’s the last day people can shop in stores, but following Christmas, retailers will then start a new slew of sales into the new year.”

On top of that, retailers are offering lower minimums or no limits to get free shipping and are pushing for online purchases with in-store pickups.

“What we’re seeing now is that retailers are listening to the customer and offering them exactly what they want,” Ms. Smith said. “They want a special promotion to buy online and pick up in store, or they want free shipping all the time.”

Kelly Cook, chief marketing officer for Sears and Kmart department stores, said customer feedback pushed them to start holiday sales at the beginning of the month, expand their in-store pickup for online purchases and increase points rewards and cash back. Sears has been plagued by financial trouble, including nearly filing for bankruptcy, canceling or losing distribution deals with name-brand merchandisers and shuttering scores of stores this year.

“Putting our entire stores on sale is a bold, unprecedented move that will provide more value to our members as they look for the best deals this holiday season. We’re already encouraged by feedback from our members to the sale,” Ms. Cook said in an email to The Washington Times.

Still, the biggest days for shoppers will take place over Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Sunday, and Cyber Monday.

The National Retail Federation surveyed about 7,500 consumers about their holiday spending habits and surmised that about 115 million will go shopping the day after Thanksgiving. An estimated 78 million are expected online for Cyber Monday.

“There’s an excitement around the deals that are often offered on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and a lot of customers make that a ritual to go shopping that morning,” said Mr. Dodge of the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

According to the NRF survey, while the majority of shoppers (66 percent) brave the aisles and the internet for exclusive deals and sales, a little over 20 percent say they enjoy going out to stores because it’s family time or a fun activity over the weekend.

“We’re also seeing consumers report tradition and the opportunity to partake in holiday cheer as reasons for shopping, too,” said Pam Goodfellow, an analyst of the NRF survey. “By now, people know what sort of deals they can expect to see during the weekend and are budgeting for them accordingly, and in many cases expertly.”

Online vs. in store

With the rise of online shopping, major retailers still value the benefit of bricks-and-mortar outlets that will draw the majority of customers this year.

“It’s a shift, but the value of the stores is still very high,” said Mr. Dodge. “People like to be able to see, touch and feel products before they buy them and stores allow that in a way that pure e-commerce model does not.”

Even though retailers have made a push to merge their store offerings with online sales, 89 percent of purchases still happen in person, said Ms. Smith.

“Brick-and-mortar continue to be the bread and butter of the retail industry,” she said.

One way retailers are innovating the shopping experience is with “retail-tainment,” offering parties, special events and gimmicks to get shoppers into stores, and not just during the holidays, Ms. Smith said.

“This has been happening almost the entire year,” she said. “It’s a fun way to further interact with the consumer.”

Walmart announced 20,000 “holiday parties” throughout November and December, when shoppers can try new products and taste-test foods. Amazon has set up pop-up shops in more than 100 of its newly acquired Whole Foods stores showcasing exclusive products like Kindle e-readers and smart-home robots such as Alexa and the Echo Dot.

Participating Macy’s stores are offering cocktail-mixing tutorials and tips on how to dress up holiday bar carts along with other seasonal decorating ideas.

Target is enticing customers with a “festive photo booth” to take pictures in front of a Lego display of Santa, a fireplace and Spot, the store mascot.

While most customers wait to start their shopping — some a little too long — about 30 percent of shoppers said they won’t go out or online for gifts to avoid the hassle during Black Friday weekend. Another 2 percent of Americans have finished making all their purchases.

“They already started shopping as early as August for all the items on their holiday list,” Ms. Smith said, referring to NRF data. “By the time Thanksgiving comes around, there may be some items they need to buy, but they want to spend more time with their family, more family traditions outside of shopping.”

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