November 25, 2004

Stores Court Shoppers on Thanksgiving

NEW YORK - For those who are bored sitting around eating turkey and stuffing and watching football all day, Thanksgiving Day is becoming more of an option to start holiday gift buying.

While many toy retailers and major department stores go dark on Thanksgiving, consumers are finding that grocery store chains and convenience outlets such as 7-Eleven Inc., which traditionally stay open, are expanding their offering in trendy toys and other gifts.

Shoppers can buy Barbies and other toys at grocery stores operated by Albertson's Inc., which teamed up with Toys R Us Inc.

And at 7-Eleven, consumers stopping by to purchase milk will find such hot gifts as Ogo, a gadget that sends instant messages,for $99.99, after a $30 rebate; an exclusive $7.99 Jessica Simpson CD; and Halo 2, the $49.99 much-hyped video game for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox video game console, according to Margaret Chabris, a company spokeswoman.

Then there's Big Lots Inc., which is offering 25 percent more specials on Thanksgiving Day than it did a year ago, said Kent Larsson, senior vice president of marketing. They include $99 recliners, marked down from $199.79, and $10 four-foot pre-lit trees, slashed from $24.99.

The majority of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. stores will be closed on Thanksgiving, but its 1,600 super centers around the country will be open, though they are not offering any specific deals. Most of the 1,500 Kmart Holding Corp. stores will be open and will feature specials on such items as board games and GameBoy Advance.

At a Wal-Mart store in Chili, a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., forklift operator Jeremy Louis, 30, bought clothes and toys early Thursday to squirrel away for his two children, age 1 and 4.

"I kind of married into the tradition" of commencing Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving Day, Louis said. "We usually put the bird in before we go out and let it cook itself."

In the online world, Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Wal-Mart, among others, are hoping to capitalize on what they say is a dramatic increase in customer traffic to their site that day by rewarding them with special discounts. Customers are increasingly doing their research online Thursday, before heading to the stores the day after, which has come to be known as Black Friday.

For the second holiday season in a row, Sears is giving customer early access to Friday's deals, allowing them to order on the Web on Thursday, and then pick up merchandise in the stores over the weekend. Wal-Mart is kicking off online holiday shopping earlier this year by offering discounts on such items as diamond bracelets and cappuccino makers for four days through Thanksgiving.

"Thursday is becoming more important for shopping - for several reasons," said Jim Neal, a retail strategist at consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates. "Some families are de-emphasizing the big deal family meal. Others may be cooking ahead, freeing up time to go shopping."

He added that stores are more than willing to help out by "capturing the share of their wallet."

As retailers prepare for what is commonly known as the official start of the holiday season on Friday, their mood has improved in recent weeks as falling fuel prices and strong job gains revived consumer spending momentum that slowed in the summer. But many shoppers, particularly those who have limited disposable income, are saying they will be cautious.

As a result, many merchants are trying to change consumers' buying behavior by getting them to shop early. It seems like it's working.

Last year, the busiest day of the shopping season was the Friday after Thanksgiving, instead of the last Saturday before Christmas, which was the second busiest day, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That reversed a trend seen over the last 10 years, when the busiest day was the Saturday before Christmas, according to Mike Niemira, chief economist at the industry group.


AP Business Writer Ben Dobbin in Rochester, N.Y. contributed to this story.


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