Wal-Mart steps up competition for holiday shopping

As more stores push for Thanksgiving shoppers, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) is stepping up its game for the official kickoff to the holiday shopping season.

The world's largest retailer said Tuesday that it will start to offer its holiday blockbuster deals at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving at its stores, two hours earlier than last year. It will stagger holiday deals throughout the night and into "Black Friday" -- the day that's traditionally the start of the holiday shopping season.

The company will increase its stock of TVs by 65 percent and double the number of tablets for sale that weekend, while promising sharper discounts. It's also bulking up the list of guaranteed popular items that it will sell in designated sections of its store to 21, from just three last year.

Wal-Mart is responding to what's expected to be a fiercely competitive holiday shopping season, the busiest time of the year for retailers. The Friday after Thanksgiving has traditionally been the official kickoff to the period, but in the last few years, that start has increasingly crept into Thanksgiving as stores realize they need to be the first ones to grab shoppers' dollars. This year, stores including Macy's Inc., J.C. Penney Co. and Kohl's Corp. are opening for the first time on Thanksgiving evening.

Best Buy Co. announced that it was opening at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving, earlier than last year's midnight opening. Toys R Us said that it will open at 5 p.m. on the holiday, three hours earlier than last year.

Most of Wal-Mart's 4,000 U.S. namesake stores are already open 24 hours year-round. But it's now concentrating the holiday deals on Thanksgiving.

During a media call Monday, Duncan McNaughton, executive vice president and chief merchandising and marketing officer at Wal-Mart's U.S. namesake division, said the discounter carefully studied the competitive landscape when it decided to start the deals earlier at 6 p.m. Thanksgiving.

"Everyone's moved up this year so it will be a new dynamic," said McNaughton.

For online shoppers, Wal-Mart will be offering special deals starting Thanksgiving morning, some of which will be the same as those offered at the sales events at the stores later in the evening.

The stakes are high for retailers since the holiday season accounts for up to 40 percent of their annual revenue. The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, expects an increase of 3.9 percent to $602.1 billion in holiday sales.

There's also more pressure on retailers this year because the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is six days shorter than in 2012.

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