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Shopping opener this year: The early bird gets the deal

During her workday Wednesday at Target in Willmar, Stacy Neumeister makes sure that everything is in order in the aisles most beloved by the tots. Retailers are pulling out all the stops for the holiday shopping season, and the deals begin long before the traditional Black Friday after Thanksgiving. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

WILLMAR -- At Ken's Casuals in downtown Willmar, the holiday decorating was done and the finishing touches were being placed on the store's float for the Holidaze parade on Saturday.

"Now we just need the people," said Pam Klein, co-owner of the store.

From deep discounts to layaway plans to extended hours, retailers are pulling out the stops to entice shoppers into the stores.

And they're not waiting until the day after Thanksgiving, the traditional opening date for the holiday shopping season. Consumers who hit the stores this weekend will find a raft of early bargains.

At Herberger's, prices are being slashed 20 to 60 percent for a two-day sale today and Saturday. Shoppers can use store and online coupons for additional discounts. The Pennsylvania-based retailer also is sweetening the deal with triple rewards points.

Best Buy and Walmart hope to lure in early-bird customers with aggressive pricing on electronics.

Inventory? Check. Free shipping? Check. Online shopping? Check.

It's all part of a bid to motivate shoppers to come into stores and spend, and the sooner the better.

"Everybody's trying to get them in earlier," said Roger Thorson, manager of the J.C. Penney store in Willmar. "We're in our holiday season already."

Retailers took a battering from the recession during the past two holiday seasons. This year there are signs the economy is slowly recovering. The Conference Board, a private research group, released its index of leading economic indicators this week, showing a 0.5 percent increase in October and signaling modest growth ahead for the U.S. economy.

For holiday shoppers, it means retailers are working extra hard to gain their attention.

"Some of the offers are going to be much better than they have in past years," Thorson said.

At Target, the push already started back in October with discounts for customers who use Target's store-branded credit and debit cards.

Shopping online at No problem. The retail giant is offering free shipping on eligible items -- no minimum purchase requirement, no subscription fees -- to your home until Dec. 20. Combined with Walmart's free Site to Store service, the no-cost shipping could save consumers as much as $25 million this holiday season, Walmart officials estimate.

At Sears, the consumer perks include monthly payment and layaway plans, doorbuster prices and extra discounts for shoppers who use their Sears card for selected purchases.

J.C. Penney has turned to the social media to get out the word on special deals: Coupons are now being texted to customers' mobile phones.

Customers at the Willmar Penney's store at the Kandi Mall also will find new merchandise, including a new line of cookware and expanded selections of jewelry, children's games, women's boots and big- and tall-sized clothing, Thorson said.

"I think they'll be very happy with what they see," he said.

Small specialty retailers like Klein can't offer the deep discounts of the big-box stores but they have something else -- service.

"That's what we have to go on," Klein said. "It isn't all about price. It's about quality and the name that stands behind it. That's really what makes us different. The free gift wrapping and some of the alterations that other places don't offer means a lot to people."

Downtown Willmar merchants are officially launching the holiday season on Saturday with their annual Holidaze celebration. The party starts at 3 p.m. and includes a sing-along, a children's costume contest, an appearance by Santa Claus and a parade at 6:30 p.m.

The Main Street Willmar organization also hopes to bring shoppers downtown with a cash giveaway that starts Dec. 1.

Klein and Ken's Casuals co-owner Jan Scheltens have hosted a holiday open house each year, but this year they've changed it to a customer appreciation day. From noon to 4 p.m. Sunday they'll be handing out hors d'oeuvres and pouring wine for their shoppers.

"Even if they aren't shopping and just want to browse, they're welcome to come in and see us. It should be a fun weekend," Klein said.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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