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U.S. retailers push deals early as Black Friday loses focus

| CHICAGO

CHICAGO Nov 23 With sales on Black Friday slipping, U.S. retailers are offering pre-Thanksgiving deals even earlier than in recent years to draw shoppers as the day after no longer marks a spending peak at brick-and-mortar chains.

Black Friday, as the day after Thanksgiving is called, has traditionally started the holiday shopping season in the United States and was the day when retailers turned a profit, thus going from "being in the red" to "in the black."

Many retailers have started opening their stores on Thanksgiving evening to boost customer traffic and sales.

But the number of Thanksgiving weekend shoppers fell by nearly a third to 102 million in 2015, from 147 million in 2012, according to the National Retail Federation. Moreover, early holiday promotions and online shopping hurt in-store spending by more than 6 percent last year, it said.

U.S. retailers, however, have redoubled efforts this year to boost sales with familiar tactics but greater intensity. Wal-Mart has already said it will increase inventory by more than half this year and make deals typically reserved for Black Friday available online early Thanksgiving morning.

Retail pricing and data analytics firm Market Track said an analysis of 15 top U.S. brick-and-mortar retailers and their Black Friday circular announcements online showed they were about three days earlier than last year.

"They are all trying to beat each other to the punch and starting their promotions earlier and earlier every year," said Traci Gregorski, senior vice president, marketing at Market Track.

Last year, discounts on popular products deepened by 30 to 40 percent from Black Friday prices as Christmas got closer, according to Market Track data.

Mark Cohen, a professor at Columbia Business School and the former chief executive of Sears Canada, said the urgency related to Black Friday has greatly diminished.

"Consumers know great deals and discounts are available throughout the year, and prices during the holiday season will only get better if they wait," he said.

Deals have been available for several days already on websites of retailers like Target Corp, Macy's Inc , Kohl's Corp, Home Depot Stores Inc and Lowe's Cos Inc.

E-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc joined with a first of its kind month-long Black Friday promotion.

Some brands are getting in on the action by offering steep discounts that reduce the appeal of waiting for Black Friday. Handbag maker Kate Spade is already offering 75 percent off some items, and off-price chain Saks Off Fifth has similar discounts on some clothing and shoes.

EXPANDING SEASON

"The holiday season is expanding, and Black Friday is no longer the kickoff for the season," said Natalie Kotlyar, who heads retail and consumer products at business advisory firm BDO Consumer, adding many start holiday shopping at Halloween, Labor Day or even Amazon's Prime Day on July 12.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll of 1,639 adults online showed 63 percent did not plan to shop on Black Friday this year. Some 32 percent said they plan to finish about half of their holiday shopping on that day.

The year-end shopping season spanning November and December is crucial for retailers because it can account for up to 40 percent of their annual sales. The NRF, which has been overly optimistic at times in the past with its sales projections, expects holiday sales to grow 3.6 percent this year to $655.8 billion.

For Black Friday alone, about 70 percent of retailers expect sales to remain flat this year, according to telephone interviews with chief marketing officers at 100 U.S. retail firms, BDO Consumer said.

Nevertheless, big bricks-and-mortar players like Target and Wal-Mart will still open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving. (Reporting by Nandita Bose in Chicago, Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Cynthia Osterman)

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