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Holidays starting earlier at stores

Retailers hope a longer season will raise profit

Most Americans haven’t thought about their Halloween costumes, and parents are still in back-to-school mode.

But retailers already have visions of profit dancing in their heads.

Kmart aired its first holiday ad last week, starring a gingerbread man touting the store’s layaway program. Wal-Mart and Toys R Us have publicized lists of their hot holiday toys.

This year, Christmas Creep goes turbo.

Retailers are starting the holiday season earlier than ever to lure elusive shoppers. The holiday shopping season accounts for roughly 20 percent of all annual retail activity, and last year’s was only lukewarm.

Since then, merchants have been bedeviled by waffling consumer confidence – a product of economic pressure from fleeting jobs, higher payroll taxes and expensive gasoline – and a persistent frugality inherited from the recession.

Janney Capital Markets analyst Adrienne Tennant wrote in a report Monday that September has been underwhelming for retailers so far, with a lack of newness in fashion apparel offerings likely to limit sales through the fall.

“We believe the back-to-school season has been below expectations and implies a weak holiday,” she predicted.

A report Tuesday from analytics firm ShopperTrak predicts that visits to stores will decrease 1.4 percent year-over-year this holiday season, although sales will rise 2.4 percent.

“Nobody can afford to procrastinate,” said Bill Martin, ShopperTrak’s founder.

This year, there are only 25 days between Christmas and Black Friday on Nov. 29 – the day when many retailers have historically used door-buster deals to kick off the holiday shopping season.

Last year, the period was 32 days long.

ShopperTrak expects promotions to begin as early as the day after Halloween.

Sales at apparel and accessories stores in November and December will increase 2.8 percent from 2012, though traffic will slip 1 percent, according to the group. Electronics and appliance stores will enjoy a 2 percent sales bump while visitor counts will decrease 1.2 percent.

Retailers are hoping to boost those numbers by getting a head start on the season, which last year brought in $579.8 billion in revenue.

Costco warehouses are already stocking Christmas decorations and artificial trees. The West Elm home decor chain has unveiled its holiday collection.

Kmart last week started promoting its free Christmas layaway program, available in stores and online with no minimum purchase requirement. A graphic on the company’s Facebook page urges fans to be “Kmart smart” by “setting your holiday budget in September … and sticking to it.”

But some consumers resent the presence of Christmas advertising in September, echoing sentiments voiced last year when retailers began opening their doors to Black Friday shoppers while Thanksgiving dinner was still on the table.

“What happened to Halloween and Thanksgiving?” Facebook user Crystal Salas-Dziadowicz wrote on Kmart’s Facebook profile. “Stop with the Christmas commercials already!!”

Others cheered the note.

“I can get those items in high demand before others and before they sell out,” wrote user Cassandra George Terry.