Saturday, December 16, 2017
Business

Retailers making it easier, cheaper for shoppers

NEW YORK — This holiday season, Burger King won't be the only place where you can have it your way.

It used to be enough for stores to promise discounts of up to 70 percent to lure shoppers during the busy holiday period. But the ease of ordering online and the sluggish economy changed that. Americans are no longer impressed by discounts alone. Now they want their shopping just like their fast food: not only cheap, but also convenient.

That means they're no longer afraid to walk away from the cashmere sweater with the perfect fit if the store is crowded. They're unwilling to buy those suede pumps in just the right shade of blue if shipping costs extra. And they cringe at the prospect of carrying around paper coupons; they'd rather pull them up electronically on smartphones.

Retailers from Walmart to Macy's are doing everything they can to make it easier for more finicky shoppers to spend during the holidays. Some are offering free layaway and shipping. Many are matching in-store prices with cheaper online deals. Others are allowing shoppers to buy online and pick up their merchandise in stores.

The have-it-your-way approach is partly a response to fear. Merchants are concerned that shoppers will spend less freely this season because of worries about high unemployment and a package of tax increases and spending cuts known as the "fiscal cliff," which will take effect in January unless Congress passes a budget deal.

The changes also come as the growth of smartphones and tablet computers has made it easier to browse and buy with the touch of a fingertip.

That puts pressure on brick-and-mortar retailers, which count on holiday shopping for up to 40 percent of their annual revenue, to get shoppers into stores.

"Retailers have to do a little more to grow sales this year," said Frank Badillo, a senior economist at consultancy Kantar Retail.

With websites offering the convenience of shopping in the comfort of homes or office cubicles, brick-and-mortar stores concluded that they would have to replicate their online rivals' formula. Shopping needs to be cheap and easy, they figured. So stores began trying new ways to make shopping more convenient last year, such as free shipping and expanded hours.

About 44 percent of retailers are offering free shipping this year, a jump from 12.5 percent last year, said Vicki Cantrell, executive director of Shop.org, the National Retail Federation's digital retail division that tracks retailers' online offers. And UPS said retailers also are working to make returns easier by including return labels in packages or providing a link online that customers can use to print labels.

Additionally, some stores, including Best Buy, Toys "R" Us and Wal-Mart, are offering customers the option of ordering online and then picking up merchandise in stores.

Additionally, this year, Sears and Kmart ditched layaway fees, which could be as much as $10 for 12 weeks. Walmart lowered layaway fees from $15 to $5.

Also new this year, big merchants such as Target and Best Buy are matching cheaper prices that customers find online. It's an attempt to combat the growth of "showrooming," when customers look at merchandise in stores but buy it cheaper online.

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