Holiday shopping season sales in for major retailers

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The holiday rush kicks off this week with less-than-merry mass-market retailers adopting a one-word marketing strategy: Sale.

Sears, Roebuck & Co., Wal-Mart Stores and Kmart Corp. are among those pitching price in advertising, and in Sears' case, it hopes to shout the loudest.

"I truly believe we will be the largest advertiser in America during the next six weeks," said David Selby, senior VP-retail marketing at Sears, noting the company will promote "after-Christmas prices before the holiday." He added, "We want to drive the door and command attention."

To do so, the retailer breaks a flurry of six TV commercials this week from Ogilvy & Mather, Chicago, announcing "a sale on top of a sale," offering discounted gifts ranging from leather jackets to dishwashers. Three of the spots emphasize early morning opening sales (7 a.m. to 11 a.m.) and 72-hour sales. The other three commercials stress pre-Christmas specials with humorous scenarios such as a man relaxing before the TV when his family arrives weeks ahead for holiday dinner, and a woman at her office cubicle drinking punch from a bowl flanked by holiday lights- in November. Y&R Advertising's Chicago and New York offices also produced another trio of holiday commercials emphasizing sales of products from athletic shoes to tools. All the Sears advertising emphasizes a new copy line: "This is no time to fool around," though Sears' signature tagline, "The good life at a great price. Guaranteed," remains. Alan J. Lacy, Sears' new CEO, however, has called the line's fate into question (see story page 50).

A separate Sears spot for the Hispanic market also will have a sale theme. Mendoza, Dillon & Asociados, Newport Beach, Calif., handles.

In addition to the sales, Sears will back a number of promotions intended to better integrate Sears.com into its marketing. Early-morning bargain prices at stores will be honored online as much as possible, Mr. Selby said. One online promotion will give away 250 Sony PlayStation 2 units in a sweepstakes open to those spending $50 or more on the site. Another joint promotion gives away a $50 gift certificate at Sears.com to those signing up for service at America Online, along with a chance to win $10,000 a week over five weeks. The AOL promotion will be supported with a TV spot from A. Eicoff & Co., Chicago.

DOWNSIZING INVENTORY

Retail consultant Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, said Sears is "trying to get rid of inventory and get to customers before the competition gets hold [of the customers'] pocketbooks." Mr. Barnard, who expects holiday sales to increase in the range of 3% to 4% this year, said most stores lack alternatives to a pure sales strategy. Wal-Mart, which told Wall Street investors it anticipates slower profit growth this holiday season, plans to continue its everyday-low-pricing strategy and will introduce a new branding spot this holiday season, via GSD&M, Austin, Texas. A holiday-theme commercial backing Walmart.com debuted last week. And Kmart already has launched a holiday effort highlighting prices for items such as lights and ribbons. Subsequent commercials from Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis, feature items such as electronics, men's apparel including Kmart's Route 66 line and toys-in contrast to previous holiday efforts that showed celebrities such as Rosie O'Donnell and Penny Marshall.

BUSINESS AS USUAL

Some specialty retailers, meanwhile, are sticking to their usual marketing tacks. The Gap is launching a series of spots developed in-house in conjunction with Modernista!, Boston, centered on its traditional strategy of showing off clothes through a musical performance. In one commercial, a group of young people toss snowballs to the tune of "The Little Drummer Boy," with a tagline "Slow down." Another commercial shows people dancing inside what's later revealed to be a holiday light bulb. It's tagged "Decorate yourself."

Like many other retailers this holiday season, the Gap is aiming to integrate its online efforts with its bricks-and-mortar stores. The Gap and Yahoo! have sponsored a joint promotion for a holiday trip. It also has teamed up with Barnesandnoble.com for a holiday "best-seller" gift promotion, pairing clothing such as a fleece pullover for a college guy with a $10 off opportunity on "The Perfect Storm" DVD.

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