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Holiday shoppers starting now

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Marked-down Halloween candy and decorations are still lining store shelves, but that hasn’t stopped shoppers – and retailers – from getting a jump start on Christmas gifts.

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Best Buy sales consultant Mark Hines helps Joanie Wilson shop for a new laptop computer. Wilson began her Christmas shopping in September at stores like Marshalls, adding that she doesn't always begin so early but always has her eye for good deals that fit into her budget.   EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
Best Buy sales consultant Mark Hines helps Joanie Wilson shop for a new laptop computer. Wilson began her Christmas shopping in September at stores like Marshalls, adding that she doesn't always begin so early but always has her eye for good deals that fit into her budget.

Best Buy shopper Maricel Williams said she finds it necessary to start shopping early before she mails gifts to friends and family across the country this holiday season. She also wants to avoid any headaches associated with shopping in packed stores.

“If I find something early in the year, any time of the year, I’ll just go ahead and get it,” Williams said. “I just don’t want to wait until the week before Christmas because I don’t want to venture out into all that.”

About 40 percent of Americans started their holiday shopping before Halloween, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual holiday consumer survey. Many consumers who shop early for holiday gifts do it in an attempt to spread out their spending, in addition to getting good deals and averting crowds and last-minute shopping stress.

Mailers and television commercials soon will be using pitches once reserved for Black Friday deals, such as doorbusters and early bird sales, weeks before the day-after Thanksgiving traditional start to the shopping season. For discount retail giant Wal-Mart, early online savings events that were traditionally reserved for Black Friday and Cyber Monday are starting now. Toy retailer Toys R Us has been offering pricing incentives, an extended return policy and extra rewards points since September.

Wal-Mart shoppers Jessica Billing and Rachel Himes said they’ll likely start making holiday purchases, especially electronics and toys, within the next couple of weeks to catch the best prices and pick up items before they’re out of stock.

Himes said her mother has already run into trouble trying to find one of this season’s hottest holiday toys for Himes’ son.

“My mom’s been trying to get Elmo for his Christmas for the last month and a half,” she said. “She started way early since the Elmo’s been out.”

Best Buy is urging shoppers to come in before Black Friday by offering sales and promotions equivalent to those typically released closer to Christmas.

“Consumer electronics as a whole has gotten more and more competitive over the years,” said Andrew Townes, the manager of the Best Buy near Augusta Exchange. “I think of one of the reasons why we’re seeing it earlier and earlier is the promotions we’re running now are just as good as the ones we run in November and December.”

Townes said shoppers expressing interest in holiday purchases began filtering into the store in mid-October. This year, though, has been different than previous ones as several new devices, including Apple’s iPad Air and latest iPhone 5, the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, have been or will be released in coming weeks, he said.

“It used to be based on calendar,” Townes said. “It’s difficult to gauge now because new-release products are going to drive more traffic than just the holiday season.”

In the past decade, retailers have shifted their holiday marketing in an effort to compete with new commerce methods, such as online and mobile shopping, occurring outside a traditional brick-and-mortar location, said Marianne Bickle, the director of the Center for Retailing at the University of South Carolina.

Sales made between October and December, or as Bickle calls “the critical months,” also make or break a store’s annual profit margin, which is why they try to draw customers earlier in the fall, she explained.

“It’s a win-win situation for retailers because hopefully they will garner more sales and meet their sales goals, but it also helps consumers make wiser choices, find sales and save money,” Bickle said.

At the Augusta Mall, general manager Andrew Wilke said shopping traffic typically picks up directly after Halloween and steadily increases throughout November. The Saturday before Christmas is usually the busiest shopping day followed by Black Friday.

“We expect shoppers to get an early start to their holiday shopping because there are six fewer days this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” he said.

Mall store managers, Wilke said, have been preparing for the holiday influx for months by ordering merchandise, developing sales strategies and hiring seasonal staff.

“Retailers are much better at managing their inventory levels than ever before,” Wilke said. “Do not expect last minute overstock clearance sales.”

The National Retail Federation predicts that overall holiday sales will be up just 3.9 percent, at $602, 1 billion from 2012. The amount that an average holiday shopper is expected to spend this year on gifts, decorations, greeting cards and other merchandise is $737.95, which represents a 2 percent drop from last year’s $752.24.

Continued uncertainty surrounding the U.S. economy and government were cited as reasons for the bland projections.

HOLIDAY SHOPPERS

12.4 percent: start before September

8.2 percent: start in September

20.6 percent: start in October

38.8 percent: start in November

16 percent: start in the first two weeks of December

3.9 percent: start in the final two weeks of December

WHY THEY ARE STARTING EARLY

60.3 percent: spread out gift shopping spending

46.5 percent: avert big crowds

44.2 percent: avoid stress of last-minute shopping

41.9 percent: prices and promotions too good to pass up

Source: The National Retail Federation


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