DAYTON, Ohio — Despite a holiday season dampened by a struggling economy and high unemployment rates, shoppers will find much to be jolly about in the ways retailers will actively court them this year.
Savvy spenders in 2011 can expect extended store hours, free shipping offers, reasonable layaway programs and revved-up online shopping sites.
There is good cause for retailers to spice things up for value-conscious shoppers.
Holiday retail sales for 2011 are expected to increase 2.8 percent to $465.6 billion, according to the National Retail Federation, but that growth is lower than the 5.2 percent increase that retailers experienced last year.
Web of allure
The trifecta of holiday bargain days — Black Friday (always the day after Thanksgiving and arguably the busiest shopping day of the year), Small Business Saturday on Nov. 26, and Cyber Monday on Nov. 28 — is surely not to be ignored, but keep in mind that the Internet has made shopping a 24/7 bargain bonanza.
Online retailers are prepping by optimizing their sites, beginning their marketing and promotions early, and planning plenty of free shipping promotions as they aim to provide value and convenience for their shoppers, says Fiona Swerdlow of Shop.org. "Online retailers will also leverage their social media and mobile platforms for savvy shoppers on the go, knowing how important customer reviews and comparison-shopping applications are to holiday shoppers."
Let the games begin
Target, Macy's and other big-box retailers will open at the stroke of midnight on Black Friday to get in additional holiday shopping hours. JC Penney, on the other hand, is sticking with a 4 a.m. opening except at stores in malls that open earlier.
In the meantime, other retailers are waiting to announce their plans.
Lay it away
Layaway plans have re-emerged from the shopping days of yore as consumers work to eliminate credit card debt.
This year, the Sears layaway program allows customers to pay as little as $20 or 20 percent down (whichever is greater) and make online or in-store payments every two weeks before claiming their goods. Sears charges $5 to initiate a layaway contract and $15 for cancellation.
In the Kmart in-store and online layaway program, shoppers are required to pay $5 to start a layaway contract, make a down payment of $15 or 10 percent (whichever is greater), and are subject to a $10 cancellation fee.
Wal-Mart's layaway campaign began Oct. 17 and can be used for in-store purchases of $50 or more on electronics, fine jewelry and toys. Each item must be worth at least $15, and shoppers must pay a $5 initiation fee, place 10 percent down, and pay off and pick up the merchandise by Dec. 16 or face a $10 cancellation fee.
Tip: It's always a good idea to ask local boutiques about their layaway policies.
Shipping in style
Shoppers have plenty to be joyous about this holiday season: Research shows that 92.5 percent of online retailers say they plan to offer free shipping at some point. That's up from 84.8 percent in 2010.
Eager shoppers also can expect these offers to start soon, according to Shop.org's eHoliday survey. Nearly one-third (31.4 percent) of businesses surveyed said their free shipping offers would start earlier in the season compared to last year.
When it comes to holiday gift-giving, most of us have the same mind-set: We want to give loved ones (and perhaps ourselves) high-quality presents without the high price tags.
Here are some tips to celebrate the season in style without breaking the bank:
■ Shop early and shop often, says Michelle Madhok, online shopping expert and editor of Shefinds.com. Stores are expected to have smaller inventories this year, so don't delay if you have specific gifts in mind.
■ Fend off holiday madness by staying organized. Madhok suggests creating shopping lists and budgets by registering (for free) on Rememberthemilk.com.
■ Take advantage of search engines that offer coupon alerts for savvy shoppers.
Madhok recommends Shopstyle.com and Pronto.com. You can sign up for sale alerts and newsletters and you can tailor your account to include your preferred brands and products.
■ Frequently visit off-price stores including T.J. Maxx and Marshalls to snag brand names and designer fashions at a fraction of department store prices.
"These stores get a lot of great holiday items, such as candles, makeup sets and gloves," Madhok says.
Off-price stores typically receive shipments every day in small quantities, she says, so it pays to be zealous in your shopping expeditions. Madhok strives to visit such stores daily to score the best deals.
■ Use free smartphone apps such as Coupon Sherpa, Google Shopper and Shop Savvy to ensure that you are getting the best price in town or on the Internet, according to helpsavemydollars.com.
The apps let you scan product barcodes, and they instantly find you the best price available plus any coupons or rebates being offered.
And one of the latest free apps to make shopping a wintry breeze: Google Wallet. With this app, you can make purchases, redeem coupons and earn points at select stores with a tap of your cell phone.
■ Scour the newspaper for sales, coupons and inserts.
■ "Like" the Facebook pages of your favorite retailers and follow stores on Twitter. Often, special deals and private sales will be announced. You can register on New York & Co.'s Facebook page, for instance, for free trip to New York City.