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Christmas comes earlier this year for Sears and Toys "R" Us

As soon as the fireworks smoke cleared from Independence Day events, some retailers hopped on the Christmas holidays bandwagon.

This week Sears opened a "Christmas Lane" section on sears.com and kmart.com that features trim-a-tree decorations. Hundreds of Sears stores, including those in the Tampa Bay area, started building their holiday departments earlier than ever with a collection of plastic snow-covered holiday villages for home displays.

Meanwhile, Toys "R" Us next week kicks off the season with Santa-and-palm tree-bedecked ads promoting a Christmas-in-July sale that runs July 19 through 25 and features seasonal in-store games and events for kids.

Tepid sales and shoppers who turned more Scrooge-like in June means the few retailers like HSN that often staged summer Christmas sales have more company this year. And Sears, which usually sets out the holiday decorations the day after Labor Day, moved the season up as an early-bird message that the chain offers layaway to the credit-poor.

"Everybody needs a little Christmas at this very minute," explained Jennifer Albano, a spokeswoman for Toys "R" Us, which has never done a Christmas sale event this early.

June sales that came in even weaker than expected weighed in the decisions to pull the trigger. Nationally, sales in stores open more than a year dropped 5.1 percent in 32 chains, excluding Wal-Mart, according to the retailing index compiled by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs.

"Beneath the surface, there were some signs of improvement with a handful of teen and value retailers posting surprisingly healthy gains," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist for ICSC. "These nascent signs of improvement are important, since history suggests consumer spending typically starts off sluggish prior to significant improvement."

Indeed, a survey released this week by Accenture found a few more shoppers not waiting for a sale price to buy (57 percent this year vs. 62 percent a year ago) and fewer trading down to less-expensive apparel (27 percent to 29 percent).

However, shoppers remain price conscious. The survey found 52 percent thinking their personal situation has gotten worse and 48 percent "believe it will be up to three years" before they can spend freely again.

The bottom line: Retailers that already cut their inventory to meet slack demand face trimming prices on what's left when the back-to-school season gets serious in about two weeks. This time Florida retailers will not have the benefit of a state sales tax holiday to stimulate sales.

"Back-to-school season is going to very modest this time," said Chris Donnelly, a partner in the Accenture retail consulting practice. "On the one hand, kids keep growing so parents have to buy. But they likely will buy less or trade down."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Christmas comes earlier this year for Sears and Toys "R" Us 07/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 10, 2009 10:27pm]
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