Bring it on: Traditional retailers, online competitors square off in the battle over holiday shoppers

The battle is on between bricks-and-mortar retailers and their increasingly potent Internet adversaries.

Frustrated by once-loyal customers who have been wooed away by online merchants, retailers are gearing up with new weapons to stop the continuous flow of shoppers from stores to computers and smartphones.

With the holiday season approaching, some chains are vowing to match prices with their biggest online rivals. Others are offering free layaway and expanding their assortment of unique products or adding Wi-Fi and other digital upgrades inside stores to entice tech-savvy shoppers. There's even increasing talk about same-day deliveries.

"We think we have a huge advantage over Internet-only companies," Toys R Us Inc. Chief Executive Jerry Storch said in an interview. "Every possible way the customer wants to use the Internet - or their neighborhood store - to interact with Toys R Us is available. The customer can choose how to do business with us."

Online merchants say they are ready to fight. Nearly a quarter of shoppers say they'll go online to do most of their holiday shopping this year, according to a survey from consulting firm Deloitte, and 75 percent said they expect to buy at least one item online this season. But Web retailers said they sense the competition with traditional retailers and are busy as well, kicking off their holiday ads before Halloween and expanding free shipping and other promotions.

Amazon.com Inc., the nation's largest online retailer, has geared up.

"Every year we want to offer great deals," spokeswoman Pia Arthur said. "We will have fun types of things going on for the holidays."

It's always a high-stakes competition for the retail dollar, and experts say this year it's more intense than ever. And no wonder: Merchants rake in an estimated 25 percent to 40 percent of their annual sales in the last two months of the year. Shoppers this year will drop an estimated $586.1 billion during the holidays, according to the National Retail Federation.

Best Buy Co. Inc. and Target Corp. are taking direct aim at Web merchants with online price matching, partly to grab customers who now use their stores as showrooms - to check out items and then go buy them more cheaply on the Internet.

"We are taking on showrooming," said Amy von Walter, a spokeswoman at Best Buy, which has granted salesclerks the ability to match online prices for appliances and hardware, including tablet computers and cameras, during this holiday season. "It's really about empowering employees to be able to match the price when it makes sense and make the sale."

Target vows to match prices with Amazon and the Web stores of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Best Buy and Toys R Us.

"It's instant gratification for guests," said Dustin Hamilton, Los Angeles district manager for Target. "Instead of waiting one day or four or five days for something to come in the mail, you get it right away for the same price."

The discounter has also added free Wi-Fi to its stores and placed QR bar codes, which can be scanned by smartphones to bring up product information, on ads so shoppers can buy the items directly from their phones.

Toys R Us has extended free layaway until Dec. 16 and rolled out a reservation service so parents can nab popular playthings early and avoid frantic last-minute searching during the holidays.

"You can go order online and pick it up immediately at your neighborhood store," said Storch, the CEO. "You don't have to wait around home for FedEx to arrive or come home to the little sticky note on the door."

The chain is also pushing the idea that shoppers can browse an expanded lineup of items found nowhere else, including a $150 kid-oriented tablet computer called Tabeo.

Wal-Mart, which already allows shoppers to buy items online and pay for them in cash in stores, is extending layaway and has slashed the price for opening a layaway account. The world's biggest retailer is also testing same-day delivery on certain gift items in three cities and expanding the experiment to San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., in early November.

The goal is to entice customers with tools that enable them "to shop when and where and how they want," said Ravi Jariwala, a company spokesman.

"Our vision is to win at e-commerce," Jariwala said. "We can do that by connecting the website with stores, and that gives us a unique advantage."

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