Eager stores try Christmas in July

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NEW YORK --- Santa in the summer?

Retailers are pumping still more energy this year into trying to get shoppers to loosen their purse strings early for Christmas, using sparkly ornaments, holiday music and special prices. In July.

Target Corp. is entering the game for the first time, with a one-day online sale starting Friday on 500 items from clothing to Blu-ray disc players that's modeled after sales typically held Thanksgiving weekend. And Sears and Toys R Us are dramatically promoting "Christmas in July" online and in the stores based on the success they saw last year.

"We really wanted to create that sense of excitement, that sense of urgency," said Target spokeswoman Molly Hanus.

Retailers pushed Christmas promotions as early as September during the recession as they competed for shoppers' dwindling dollars. Some recession-weary shoppers have been glad to spread out the cost of the holidays, especially if discounts average 40 percent, like Target's. But others might be turned off by the snowflakes and Santas and glitz.

"It's smarter to buy this early," said Ebony Rios, a 17-year-old high school student shopping over the weekend at Toys R Us in Times Square, where a Santa in sunglasses lounged in a swimming pool in one ad. The Clayton, N.C., resident -- who said she spent $200 on her nieces and nephews at the store's online summer sale last year -- plans to take advantage again this year.

But Tammy Perez, 28, from Bloomington, Ind., wasn't ready. "It's too hot to think about Christmas," said the administrative assistant, also at Toys R Us on Sunday. "The earliest I will shop will be in October."

Some merchants agree.

"Customers don't like it when you push Christmas too early," said Mike Boylston, the chief marketing officer for J.C. Penney.

That's especially true when shoppers are already putting off buying anything until the moment they need it, he said.

Janet Hoffman, the global managing partner at Accenture's retail practice, called July holiday sales "a risky bet." Shoppers could be inspired to buy more, but summer promotions also can hurt back-to-school buying and depress December business, she said.

Merchants are using a variety of tactics:

- Target customers can find a link at Target.com for what the chain is calling "Back in Black," which includes Philips Blu-ray disc players for $99.99 and Liberty of London dresses for $14.99. The 24-hour sale, which starts at 3 a.m. Eastern time Friday, will not be advertised in Target stores.

- Sears Holdings Corp.'s Sears.com and Kmart.com shoppers are invited to "Christmas Lane" to shop for lights, ornaments and outdoor decor, and the Web sites are temporarily offering free shipping on all orders worth $39 or more.

In more than 500 Sears stores, holiday tunes will play at least through July 25 in the seasonal aisles, where customers can touch holiday merchandise such as stuffed animals, ornaments and light-up porcelain houses. Last year's "Christmas in July" included 200 stores.

Natalie Norris-Howser, a spokeswoman at Sears Holdings, said the company might extend the sale as it did last year.

- Toys R Us is promoting its summertime discounts more heavily than last year with deals of the day and free shipping through Saturday.


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