Retailers wage fierce war for holiday customers

The battle is raging for the holiday shopper this year, with retailers using every weapon in their arsenal to triumph over their competitors.

Stores have been rolling out a dizzying number of deals since early November, far in advance of Black Friday, historically the kickoff to the holiday shopping season. Black Friday has now gone from one day to a full week in some cases, with retailers stretching their promotions to get more attention.

Black Friday sales used to be a secret. In fact, companies used to send cease-and-desist letters to people who leaked Black Friday ads online. Now, any semblance of secrecy has been replaced by promotional stunts to advertise deals, many of which aren't really that good.

For years after the Great Recession, shoppers held back on holiday purchases as the economy began a slow and halting recovery. Now, though, many consumers are feeling more confident and are ready to spend more money on gifts. Retailers sense the potential, and are eager to one-up each other this year.

Here are some of the ways companies are pulling out the stops to win the holiday shopping war:

Massive price cuts. Walmart (WMT) is cutting prices on 20,000 products this season, twice the number of rollbacks it normally offers this time of year. This holiday is especially crucial for the nation's largest retailer, which has seen six straight quarters without comparable sales growth in the U.S.

Target (TGT) says it will hold its largest ever cyber-week sale on Dec. 1, with more than 100,000 items discounted that week.

Events. It's hard to stand out amid all the noise this season. That's why Walmart and other stores are creating special events to attract shoppers. Walmart offered a 24-hour cyber-savings event on Nov. 3 with 15 specific deals, including a 40-inch HDTV for $199. And Target offered a one-day sale earlier this month with early access to Black Friday deals. It's also having a presale on Nov. 26.

Stretching out Black Friday. Amazon (AMZN) on Nov. 21 kicked off eight straight days of holiday sales, some as often as every 10 minutes. Walmart is offering Black Friday deals over five days in the last week of November.

A Black November of sales? You can almost hear the gears turning in the heads of marketing bosses nationwide.

Releasing Black Friday ads early. You can now view vast collections of Black Friday ads online -- and that's exactly how retailers want it. They want as many people to see their promotions as possible.

There's a downside to this early peek: The deals are scrutinized closely and the bad ones are called out. WalletHub analyzed more than 5,000 deals from the 22 biggest retailers, and found the biggest discounts at J.C. Penney (JCP) and Macy's (M). The retailers that didn't even crack the top 10 include Target, Walmart, Best Buy (BBY) and Amazon.

Free shipping. Target is making free shipping one of its core strategies this year, and has been offering early deals throughout November. The company is offering free shipping on 60,000 products without any order minimum.

Shipping costs were the No. 1 frustration for Target customers and the No. 1 reason for abandoned online cars, said Kathee Tesija, the company's chief merchandising officer, in a November earnings call with analysts. "So it was important for us this holiday season to be able to take that friction away and we have seen a meaningful move in orders and conversion because of it," she added.

Price matching. Walmart has authorized its store managers to match competitors' prices. It's a key strategy to reduce the threat from Amazon.

Target is also matching prices, but not during the crucial period from Nov. 27 through Dec. 1. It also has other fine-print limitations to this policy, which you can see here. It won't match Costco (COST), for example, or anything out of stock online.

  • Kim Peterson

    Kim Peterson is a financial journalist covering business and the economy. She has written for several online and print publications, including MSN Money and The Seattle Times.