By  on December 8, 2011

NEW YORK — The early kickoff of the holiday season has mass merchant retailers expecting the best Christmas in more than five years. The big unknown is what mark beauty will leave on the final tally.

Some retailers peg early estimates at 6 to 8 percent gains over last year, across all nonpharmacy categories. While electronics and apparel were the most sought-after purchases over Black Friday weekend, buyers think fragrances, cosmetics and personal care sets that can be given as gifts will rev up in the weeks leading to Christmas and Hanukkah, which overlap this year.

One thing is for sure: consumers have pent-up demand and are willing to shop crazy hours of the night, not only for bargains but also as a form of entertainment. Many ventured out at 4 a.m. on Black Friday in search of doorbuster prices but also for bragging rights.

It will be a deal-driven holiday season, no doubt, said a top official from a major drugstore chain. But what’s different this year is that discounters and drugstore operators are trying to curate gift ideas and present them in a more elegant avenue than “piling them high.” Gone are the palettes of color blockbusters. Instead, mass retailers borrowed the cue from Sephora and Ulta and created gift areas to inspire sales. There are still kits, but they are carefully edited. Ulta continued its educational programs, offering a “15 Days of Gift Giving” guide.

CVS has an attractive display of a variety of Nuance by Salma Hayek near the checkout and the beauty area. ShopRite has an entire holiday gift idea center with colorful styling tools and classic English Leather and British Sterling fragrance sets.

Value is presented in new avenues this year. Rather than just tout deep price cuts, chains are linking promotions to loyalty cards.

At Rite Aid, Wellness+ card members can get Cover Girl cosmetics, Olay skin or bath care products at a buy-one, get-a-second-at-50-percent-off deal.

Last year, buyers saw shoppers willing to buy gift sets on products not usually thought of as gifts, such as Axe fragrances and Nivea lotions. Manufacturers seized upon the opportunity this year, and there are Nivea Nourishing Effects sets with a Touch of Sparkle, a lip moisturizer and Essentially Enriched cream for under $10. Axe is back with a new kit, and Old Spice has combination packs that can be given as gifts. There’s even a Gillette Fusion ProGlide Razor gift set. CVS is also offering $5 in extra “bucks” with every $50 spent on beauty for its ExtraCare Beauty Club members.

Cosmetics marketers also hope to tap into personal care as a gift concept by offering items such as Sally Hansen’s Nail Glam, a collection of seven nail colors, one strengthener and two tools. At Target, nail accessories and bath items are presented in gift bags with bows to hammer home the gift idea.

Over the past three years, shoppers opted for single-item fragrance purchases rather than sets. Retailers believe this year the pendulum will swing back. For the first time in years, buyers bought up on sets, they said, but true value sets, such as White Diamonds with a perfume and ancillary body creams. “We are sensing a return to the well-known and loved fragrances this year,” said one source. CVS is at the forefront of the classics trend, with 50 percent off for ExtraCare members on Angel, Stetson and Jovan fragrances and under $20 set prices on Drakkar and White Diamonds.

It is a digital Christmas in the making, too. Chains with Facebook fan pages offer beauty deals. Walgreens, for instance, offered an extra 20 percent off coupon for all beauty, personal care and fragrances for walgreens.com last weekend. Bethenny Frankel tweeted about her Skinnygirl body gift sets at Wal-Mart (and her Facebook page is full of chatter about the pros and cons from consumers about selling the line at Wal-Mart). Frankel maintained in an interview earlier this year that it is her commitment to make the products available to all women.

According to the National Retail Federation, Black Friday weekend shoppers spent a record $52 billion. The NRF survey conducted by BIGresearch revealed a record 226 million shoppers visited stores and Web sites over the weekend, up from 212 million last year. The average holiday shopper spent $398.62 during the weekend, up from $365.34 last year.

Mass marketers hope their spiffed-up presentations will lure more shoppers to spend in their doors. Shoppers do seem willing to try a variety of channels. The most popular shopping destinations tracked during Black Friday by the NRF were department stores (48.7 percent) and discounters (37.5 percent). Additionally, consumers also shopped at clothing stores (24.6 percent), drug stores (14 percent) and grocery stores (23.8 percent), electronics stores (30.8 percent) and craft or fabric stores (7. 9 percent).

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