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Oct 31, 2014 10:42 AM

Wal-Mart ups ante on holiday shopping

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) Wal-Mart is doing whatever it takes to rope in holiday shoppers however they want to buy.

For the first time, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is offering free shipping on what it considers the season's top 100 hottest gifts, from board games to items related to Disney's hit film "Frozen" items, starting Saturday. The move comes as rival Target Corp. began offering free shipping on all items, a program that started late October and will last through Dec. 20.

Wal-Mart is also planning to offer discounts, or what it refers to as "rollbacks," on more than 20,000 items on a broad range of products, from groceries to TVs, starting Saturday. The timing is similar to last year, but the discounter said the assortment is broader. It's also pulling forward by nearly a month 15 24-hour online deals originally reserved for the Thanksgiving weekend and so-called Cyber Monday, about double from last year. For the first time, Wal-Mart will allow shoppers to pick up those 24-hour online specials at the store. They include 40-inch Element TVs for $199, down from $298, and Crayola Paint Makers for $12, down from $18.88. Customers will be able to purchase the deals online starting shortly after midnight on Monday.

The online deals are in addition to several hundred online holiday specials that start Saturday.

"We're trying to offer the best deals when they want them," said Steve Bratspies, Wal-Mart's executive vice president and general merchandise manager for Wal-Mart's U.S. division.

Wal-Mart unveiled some of the details of its holiday strategy as it considers matching online prices from competitors such as Amazon.com, a move that could help grab more customers but could also hurt profit margins. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based discounter has matched prices of local store competitors but has not followed other retailers including Best Buy and Target in matching prices of online rivals. But last month, Wal-Mart started to test the strategy in five markets: Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas; Phoenix; and northwest Arkansas.

Wal-Mart is trying to rev up sluggish sales in the U.S. as it battles competition from online retailers, dollar stores and drugstores. At the same time, it's also dealing with a slowly recovering economy that hasn't benefited its low-income shoppers. As a result, Wal-Mart's U.S. namesake stores, which account for 60 percent of its total business, haven't reported growth in a key sales measure in six straight quarters.

Wal-Mart's move underscores how stores are being forced to step up their game for the holiday shopping season, which accounts for about 20 percent of retail industry's annual sales. The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, forecasts a 4.1 percent sales increase to $616.9 billion for November and December from last year. But online sales, which are included in the forecast, are expected to increase anywhere from 8 percent to 11 percent.

Wal-Mart declined to say whether it was considering changing its price match policy for just the holidays or permanently. Deisha Barnett, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, says many store managers have matched online prices for customers on a case-by-case basis.

"Taking care of the customers who shop our stores is what we always aim to do," she added.

As for its free shipping holiday program, Wal-Mart said that it had store executives pick the 100 items and that products are guaranteed to arrive before Christmas. Wal-Mart's current policy is that online shoppers have to spend at least $50.


Follow Anne D'Innocenzio at http://www.Twitter.com/adinnocenzio


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