To better compete, brick-and-mortar stores figured that they'd have to replicate their online rivals' formula. Shopping in stores needs to be cheap and easy, they figured. So stores began trying new ways to make shopping more convenient last year, such as free shipping and expanded hours. But this holiday season, they've expanded the scope and scale of those incentives to include:
— EXPANDED HOURS FOR SHOPPERS WHO CAN'T WAIT TO HIT THE MALL: Stores typically open in the wee hours of the morning on the day after Thanksgiving Day known as "Black Friday." It's typically the biggest shopping day of the year. But the Black Friday openings have crept earlier and earlier over the past few years, with retailers such as Macy's Inc. opening stores at midnight. This season, some stores have expanded their hours even more: department-store chain Sears, toy-store chain Toys R Us, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and others are opening on Thanksgiving to grab those who want to shop after their turkey dinner.
"We saw a shift in how customers are shopping last year," says Ron Boire, Sears chief merchandising officer. "Members told us some of them want to stay up late. Others like the idea of getting out early."
— MORE SHIPPING AND RETURN OPTIONS FOR SHOPPERS WHO COVET CONVENIENCE: About 44 percent of retailers are offering free shipping this year, a jump from 12.5 percent last year, said Vicki Cantrell, executive director of Shop.org, the National Retail Federation's digital retail division. And package delivery company UPS, which commissioned a customer service study with research firm comScore, said retailers also are working to make returns easier, by including return labels in packages or providing a link online that customers can use to print labels out. Additionally, some stores, including consumer-electronics retailer Best Buy Co., Toys R Us and Wal-Mart, are offering customers the option of ordering online and then picking up their merchandise in stores.
Danny de Gracia, 32, a political scientist in Honolulu, Hawaii, likes to use stores' "buy online, pick up in store" option to avoid the hassle and crowds in stores. He said it allows him to just run in and grab his purchases. Gracia, who said he plans to spend no more than $1,000 this holiday season, last used the service to buy a Sony digital camera for his father at Best Buy.
"It's easier because when you're in the physical store sometimes you have to stop, ask questions and get assistance," he said. "With stores that offer online shopping you can simply search the site, read up and compare options and then purchase, pick up and leave ... It's an outstanding service that I utilize whenever possible. I wish that it would be available for groceries."
— LAYAWAY PLANS FOR FINANCIALLY-STRAPPED SHOPPERS: Programs that allow customers to pay over a period of weeks have long been used for some holiday shoppers. But typically, shoppers have to pay a fee for these so-called layaways. This year, Wal-Mart lowered the fee it charges customers on its holiday layaway program from $15 to $5. And Sears and discount chain Kmart, both divisions of Sears Holdings Corp., ditched the fee they charge completely. The two stores previously had charged $5 for an 8-week layaway and $10 for 12 weeks.
— PRICE MATCHING FOR SHOPPERS WHO ARE ADDICTED TO DEALS: While small mom-and-pop stores long have offered to match the cheaper prices that customers find online, this year big merchants such as Target and Best Buy have said that they also will do that. The move is an attempt to combat the growth of so-called "showrooming," when customers look at merchandise in stores but buy it cheaper online.
Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru said that the online price-matching programs are an attempt by brick-and-mortar stores to keep customers. "The increasing price transparency we're seeing online is something brick-and-mortar stores have to deal with and deal with it directly," she said.
—UPDATED SHOPPING APPS FOR SMARTPHONE-TOTING SHOPPERS: Shopping apps for smartphones and tablets have been around for a few years, but this year retailers are beefing them up. For instance, Macy's is launching a Black Friday portion of its mobile app, which highlights Black Friday specials and other deals not advertised elsewhere. It also will have maps and information about where in each store Black Friday deals can be found.