Starting a new holiday ritual

Many enjoy online shopping during Thanksgiving Day

November 20, 2005|By ANDREA K. WALKER | ANDREA K. WALKER,SUN REPORTER

In between the Macy's parade, turkey dinner and afternoon football, Elizabeth Nightingale plans to slip in a bit of holiday shopping on Thanksgiving.

Since most stores will be closed that day, the executive assistant at Advertising.com, a Baltimore Internet advertising company, will do her browsing and buying online.

Thanksgiving was once a lost day for most retailers, who closed for the holiday. But now dozens of national chains such as Sears, Toys "R" Us and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are planning special offers on their Web sites a day ahead of the traditional "Black Friday" rush.

As online shopping grows, it is changing not just how they shop, but when. At actual stores, the weekend before Christmas and this week's Black Friday - so named because it boosted retail ledgers into profitable black ink instead of red ink - have historically been the busiest times. But the rhythms of online shopping are evolving much differently.

"The typical day-after-Thanksgiving-Day sales are now the day before, but online only," said Laura Silsby, chief executive officer and founder of personalshopper .com, an Internet shopping site.

Last Thanksgiving Day, consumers spent about $155 million shopping online, said Visa USA Inc., the U.S. arm of the credit- and debit-card giant. That was up from $134 million in 2003 and nearly $90 million in 2002.

Most retailers will begin promoting their online Thanksgiving specials this week through e-mails to past customers, direct mail, newspaper circulars and other advertising.

Thanksgiving Day promotions are attractive to retailers because they have an audience looking to fill some free time, especially after or before families gather to eat (and watch, or ignore, football). Most pitch it as an option for those consumers who don't want to bear the next day's frenzy or who want to get a leg up on holiday specials.

"Typically there is always some downtime on Thanksgiving while you're waiting for the turkey to cook or while everyone else is watching football," said Sheliah Gilliland, public relations director for eToys Direct, which operates etoys.com, a toy Web site based in Denver. "It's a lot less harried than fighting the crowds after Thanksgiving. You're a little bit ahead of other people and can possibly get early some of the items that are very popular."

Retailers have also improved the online shopping experience, making it an easier sell to consumers, retail experts say. In its infancy less than a decade ago, online shopping was riddled with problems. Web sites were slow, shipping was expensive and stores offered a bare-bones selection of merchandise. Consumers feared posting credit card information online.

"Big retailers and department stores have been much slower to push consumers online," said Bob Diener, president and co-founder of online shopping site consumerclub.com, who also co-founded hotels.com. "We see that drastically changing. They're getting much more savvy, and they're really starting to take it more seriously."

Retailers such as Toys "R" Us will offer online specials similar to ones consumers will find in the stores on Black Friday, just a day earlier. Other retailers promote specials that customers will find only on the Internet, or use their Web sites to try out new products. For instance, Wal-Mart will feature on its site throughout the holidays a cube-shaped MP3 player and cashmere sweaters that can be bought only online.

"When we thought about the event the stores have the day after Thanksgiving, we wanted to generate that same kind of buzz on the Web site," said Raul Vazquez, vice president of marketing at Walmart.com. "The specials are meant to generate excitement for Wal-Mart.com going into the holidays."

The company expects a 60 percent growth in online sales this year. In past years, huge crowds have lined up outside Wal-Mart stores hours before they opened to snag Black Friday specials such as $20 DVD players and $200 computers. Last year, the retail giant acknowledged that it stumbled that day when its specials didn't match those of its competitors.

Some major retailers have been dismayed that bloggers have gotten inside information on some of their Black Friday promotions and publicized them before the stores were ready to.

Retailers and analysts predict that gas prices, down from the Hurricane Katrina-peak but still above a year ago, might also help drive traffic to Web sites over the malls. Nearly 80 percent of retailers are offering variations of free shipping this season to sweeten the deal, according to Forrester Research Inc. of Massachusetts.

"Consumer confidence isn't all that high this year, and they're looking for deals," said Rob Solomon, vice president of the Yahoo Shopping Group, a shopping Internet site. "It's easier to comparison shop and find deals on the Internet.

"You can shop in your jammies with your big bowl of turkey and rice," he reasoned.

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