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Ready, set, shop: 5 things to expect this holiday shopping season

There are Christmas carols on the radio. Black Friday deals have been out since before Halloween. The "Christmas creep" has been extra creepy this year. Like it or not, the holiday shopping season is already underway.

Shoppers surveyed in early October said they will spend $1,048 this year, according to the National Retail Federation's annual survey of 7,782 people. That's 4% more than in 2018.

The NRF's holiday forecast, which looks at economic factors rather than consumers' predictions about their own spending, expects holiday retail sales in November and December to increase between 3.8% to 4.2% compared to last year. It's forecasting a holiday haul between $727.9 billion and $730.7 billion.

So, how is the season shaping up so far? Take a look at five things that will mark the holiday shopping season of 2019.

Free shipping. Free, fast shipping is going to be a big deal again this year, and it's going to deliver for consumers.

Big chain retailers, especially Walmart, have stepped up their game online, making great strides to keep up with Amazon's two-day free shipping for Prime members. Walmart will offer free next-day shipping on many items this year (an improvement over last year's free two-day shipping) and Target will offer free two-day shipping through Dec. 21. Both have minimum purchase thresholds of $35. Best Buy is offering free next-day delivery on thousands of items, but not heavier ones like big-screen TVs and appliances.

But they're still playing catch-up.

Amazon now offers one-day shipping on many items shipped to the Buffalo Niagara market, with no minimum purchase requirement. It will soon bring same-day shipping as it opens a new warehouse in the Town of Tonawanda.

If that scares a global big box like Walmart, imagine what it's doing to mom and pop shops. Traditional brick-and-mortar retailers have come a long way with e-commerce, but they're still operating at a major disadvantage, and the gap is widening. The portion of people who shop online increases every year. Online consumer spending increased by 14% last year compared to 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Free Shipping Day, a one-day promotional event where dozens of retailers drop their shipping fees, will fall on Dec. 13 this year.

Click-and-collect, where customers can order online and pick up purchases at the curb, continues to increase in popularity. Most grocers offer it, as do Target and Walmart. It presents an opportunity for mom and pop retailers to capture shoppers who have gotten used to that shopping format.

Price is everything. Google released a report with insights from its treasure trove of purchasing data. Not surprising, price was the No. 1 motivating factor that got shoppers to pull the trigger. It was also the decision maker regarding which retailer a consumer will decide to shop with.

That's especially true now that the internet makes is so easy for shoppers to compare prices. Deal sites like slickdeals.net are a good venue for community-sourced bargains and commentary. Mobile searches for the term "best deals" have risen by 90% according to the report. Searches for "Black Friday deals" and "reward apps" are up 200%, Google said.

After price, the biggest motivating factors in online purchases were related to cost savings for consumers. The second most important factor was free shipping, followed by sales, discounts/promotions and fast delivery.

A shorter season. If retailers' holiday shopping kickoff seemed earlier and louder this year, there's an explanation beyond the usual bid for early spending. This year's late Thanksgiving means fewer shopping days between Christmas and the traditional holiday kickoff, Black Friday. So, the push to get consumers thinking about their shopping lists is even more urgent this year.

Thanksgiving falls on Nov. 28 – the latest date a Thanksgiving can possibly fall – leaving 26 shopping days before Christmas. If you get paid every Friday, that's just three paychecks in the interim.

Last year, Thanksgiving fell on the earliest date it possibly could, Nov. 22. That gave shoppers 32 days and five Friday paychecks.

Black November is here to stay. It's nothing new, but jump-starting Black Friday by as much as a month is the new normal.

Kohl's kicked off Black Friday deals Nov. 1. It released its 64-page Black Friday sales ad, complete with doorbusters and Kohl's cash incentives, and advertised more than 100 short-term Black Friday deals that ended Nov. 3. Walmart's Black Friday sales are already well underway online, having begun a week before Halloween. And Best Buy is making a push with extended shipping offers and has devoted space to holiday shopping on its website.

Black Friday is in full swing at Amazon, which launched its Happy HoliDeals page featuring a thousand cut-rate offers. There are "lightning deal" flash sales, daily deals and price cuts on Amazon devices.

Trade uncertainty. Consumer behavior can be unpredictable, and no one is sure how shoppers will behave amid a full-on trade war.

New tariffs on Chinese imports took effect in September and more will hit next month. They affect some of the holiday season's most popular purchase items, including clothing and toys. But consumer confidence is up, and shoppers are in a better financial position this year. Wages are up, and unemployment is down. No one is sure how things will shake out.

Consumer confidence counts for a lot. Last year's holiday sales increased by a modest 2.1% over 2017, which analysts blamed partly on 2018's government shutdown, a volatile stock market and other tariff issues. A full 79% of consumers surveyed by NRF said they were worried about higher prices and said it could affect their holiday shopping.

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