CHICAGO – With Sears selling televisions for $70 and stores selling sweaters near half price, discounts will be as plentiful as mistletoe and tinsel over the next few weeks as U.S. retailers try to lure holiday shoppers in a shrinking economy.
"We will have promotions every week, and we are more promotional this year," said Stephanie Brown, a spokeswoman for J.C. Penney Co. Inc.
"We knew this was going to be a competitive year even before September 11. Our marketing and promotion efforts are more intense this year," she said.
This weekend, all 1,080 department stores operated by Plano, Texas-based Penney will pass out chocolate bars with wrappers containing coupons for discounts of 20 percent to 30 percent off store merchandise.
Typically, retail chains offer markdowns and specials the weekend following Thanksgiving, then refrain from price cuts until the days just before Christmas, when inventories must be cleared.
But the stakes are higher this year because of the weak economy, lost jobs and consumer skittishness following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
With sales slowing during a recession, retailers are pulling out all the stops to get shoppers into their stores during the holiday season, which typically generates 25 percent of annual sales.
"They are using tried and true methods of promoting to get people in the door," said Sarah Scheuer, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation trade group. "The promotions are not fundamentally different, but there are more of them and they are more frequent."
Sears, Roebuck and Co., the nation's fourth largest retailer, will open most of its stores from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. this weekend, again offering some of the deep "doorbuster" discounts it used during Thanksgiving weekend to woo customers.
"We will have some incredible deals to bring customers into the stores," Sears spokeswoman Peggy Palter said.
For example, Sears is selling $49 VCRs and 13-inch television sets for $68 from 7 a.m. until noon. Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based Sears also added a "clearance center" to its Web site, http://www.sears.com, this holiday season.
A Bounty of Discounted Sweaters
Hefty markdowns can already be found on sweaters, a holiday gift-giving staple. Yet despite the deals, unseasonably warm weather in many parts of the country has kept consumers away from the piles of neatly folded sweaters found in most apparel chains.
"I don't care how deep retailers discount cashmere sweaters," Candace Corlett, a principal at consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail in New York, said on Thursday. "Consumers are telling us they are overstuffed. They just don't have anymore room in drawers and closets for another cashmere sweater."
At women's apparel chain AnnTaylor Stores Corp., all cashmere sweaters are 30 percent off.
At Brooks Brothers Inc., which British retailer Marks & Spencer Plc recently sold to Retail Brand Alliance, men's V-neck cashmere sweaters were marked down from $248 to $199.
On Gap Inc.'s Web site, some sweaters are marked down 40 percent. The e-commerce arm of the largest U.S. apparel chain is also offering a coupon worth 15 percent off any purchase made in Gap stores over $100.
But it is still to early to tell whether the deep discounts will generate enough sales for retailers to call it a Merry Christmas.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, sales at stores open at least a year rose a modest 2.3 percent, according to data from check acceptance company TeleCheck Services. That figure was down from last year's gain of 3.8 percent.