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    Monday, 09 October 2006

    No, Christmas is not coming early - there's just more of it to go around.

    The weather outside is still relatively hot, but if it seems like you are already seeing holiday wreaths, boxes of colorful string lights packed on store shelves, and displays of gyrating "Booty Shaker" electronic Santa Clauses and "Hip Hop" animated snowmen, well, your eyes are not deceiving you.

    Many stores have already started preparing for the holidays. But even though it's early October, that doesn't mean just displays for the Halloween or Thanksgiving seasons.

    As early as three weeks ago, some stores, including Lowe's Home Improvement, Wal-Mart and some national drug store chains were already putting up Christmas holiday decorations.

    But that's nothing new, experts say.

    "Retailers are not starting earlier this year than they have in previous years or that they have started in the last 10 or 15 years," said Dan Butler, vice president of retail operations and merchandising for the National Retail Federation.

    There are more store chains nowadays, giving consumers more of an opportunity to notice the holiday preparations and decorations, Butler said.

    "There is a bigger impression," he said.
    Butler hosted a late-September conference call with media and retailers to run down the economic outlook for the upcoming holidays, including federation forecasts that the 2006 holiday season will be slightly above par, economically.

    Addressing the annual lament that the holidays seem to be celebrated in stores earlier and earlier, Butler said there is a simple explanation.

    "First of all, retailers realize that over 40 percent of the customers begin shopping for the holiday season before the end of October," he said.

    And since stores are larger and have more decorations and preparations to make than the typical household, the process is longer - it takes between four and six weeks on average for a store to ready itself for the holidays.

    Forecast

    The retail group is forecasting 5 percent growth for the holidays over last year - about $457 billion in anticipated holiday shopping expenditures.

    That's below last year's 6.1 percent growth, which itself exceeded expectations.

    Over the past decade, the average holiday shopping growth is 4.6 percent, so "overall, a 5 percent increase in the current economic climate is very good," Butler said.

    The NRF forecast includes figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce that reflect consumer confidence. The forecast does not include spending at restaurants, on automobiles or at gas stations.

    Big days

    It's a misconception that Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving, is the biggest shopping day of the year.

    While it's used as an important gauge to measure anticipated holiday sales, the biggest sales day is typically the Saturday before Christmas, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

    Because Christmas falls on Monday, experts say to expect the malls and shopping centers to be packed on the preceding Saturday and Sunday.

    Cyber Monday, the online version of Black Friday, is expected to continue to grow this year.

    "That day has really evolved over the last 10 years," Butler said. "Last year it really broke through as a banner year for online activity."

    And retailers are seeing more shoppers go to stores on weekends, and following up with purchases, or research, during the week.

    What's Hot?

    In women's clothing, expect to see "lots of plaid" on the shelves, Butler said, adding, "We notice a lot of hand-knit and crocheted looks in women's categories."

    Sweater dresses seem to be popular, and "the short jackets are hot this year," he said. "You're going to see boots everywhere."

    Evidently organic may be in as a look as well.

    "You're going to see the whole organic theme used in marketing materials," he said.

    Products that look earthy, though they may not be truly organic, are expected to go over well, Butler said.

    He is seeing retailers gearing up for the trend by carrying items with colors like celery green and lemon yellow.

    "That sense of connecting with the organic feel is very popular," he added.

    Diet products or gift certificates to spas or gyms are also expected to be strong sellers, Butler said.

    Expect gift cards to be a popular item among consumers again, and this year many stores are capitalizing on it by offering cards geared to an individual's lifestyle.

    "We see more personalization," he said, with gift cards including photos or a theme. "Every year gift cards become more and more important with the consumer."

    Hot gifts for the kids this year will likely be the anniversary Tickle Me Elmo doll, PlayStation 3, iPods and Barbie products, according to NRF.

    Cell phones, cell phone accessories, iPods, computer gaming products and computer gifts will top the wish lists for young adults, according to NRF.

    But for now, many consumers interviewed at local stores seemed to be focused on getting their Halloween costumes and decorations in hand.

    "I won't start my Christmas shopping till the end of November. I like going later," said Ashley Jones, 18, of Long Beach.

    Jones and her sister were at the Wal-Mart at CityPlace shopping for Halloween costumes. The store's display is about three aisles big, with two aisles devoted to Christmas displays, including giant Santa snow balls.

    Thanksgiving decorations were crammed into half an aisle.

    Kristin Wojcik, 25, also of Long Beach, was also shopping for Halloween costumes and said that the current holiday trends are a double-edged sword for her emotions.

    "I was kind of stunned when I saw all the Christmas stuff out way before Halloween," Wojcik said.

    "But I really love Christmas, and seeing all the lights and hearing the music, so it makes me happy, too."

    Posted by: AT 03:34 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
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