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Standing Out In the Yule Glitz

NEW YORK -- Battling for the hearts and wallets of consumers is a Christmas tradition.<BR><BR>According to Leading National Advertisers, department and specialty stores spent $2.6 billion to hype the holiday season last year, a figure experts believe...

NEW YORK — Battling for the hearts and wallets of consumers is a Christmas tradition.

According to Leading National Advertisers, department and specialty stores spent $2.6 billion to hype the holiday season last year, a figure experts believe will be easily surpassed this year.

Suzanne Grayson, a marketing consultant, said budgets were up because “the competitive picture has made it imperative to spend more. Also, the reality of discount merchandisers has forced department stores to become more aggressive about bringing in traffic.”

To cut through the clutter, retailers are trying lots of alternatives to the standard 30-second commercial or ROP newspaper ad. So far, their strategies seem to be working. Several stores reported that last weekend was the best post-Thanksgiving weekend they’ve had in years.

Here, a spot-check of ad tactics.

Sears has rolled out the most ambitious Christmas campaign in its history, with an aggressive broadcast schedule.

Sears is sponsoring four network specials; airing a sentimental holiday campaign, “Sears…Where Wishes Come Home for the Holidays,” and running a series of humorous spots in which kids explain how hard lines products like microwave ovens work. The highly successful “Softer Side of Sears” campaign will also run throughout the season, a spokeswoman said.

For the first time, Sears developed a 96-page “Wish Book” organized by product category. The mailer was distributed to Sears credit card customers this week.

The effects of the ad blitz are already being felt.

“Friday and Saturday were the best two days after Thanksgiving we’ve ever had,” the spokeswoman said. “There is no doubt the advertising promotions played a big role in that.”

Burdines replaced its Christmas catalog with a series of 15-second commercials that ask, “What makes a great gift?” Answers range from Carole Little sweaters to Fossil watches.

The chain enlisted Phyllis Diller for a television campaign that highlights a different item each week in December. The campaign’s tone gains urgency as the holiday draws nearer. In the first spot, Diller says, “I can’t believe it’s almost Christmas.”

“Wow, it’s Christmas,” says a relieved Diller in the last.

Kmart has added Christmas-themed spots to its “Extras” television campaign, which points out perks found throughout the store. The campaign, launched in October, is being stepped up for the holiday season.

The increased frequency of the commercials has

already attracted more shoppers. “Traffic is up,” a spokesman said. “Last weekend was the best post-Thanksgiving weekend we’ve had in two or three years.”

Bradlees is pulling for the home team. The chain is running commercials on two radio stations, WEEI in Boston, which broadcasts Boston Celtics games, and WFAN in New York, which carries the Knicks.

“The two stations cover a large portion of our trade area,” said Barry Horwitz, vice president of marketing. “It’s a co-op effort where we get support from major vendors.”

Barneys New York developed an eight-page guide called “Shopping Tips for the Most Difficult Cases” for insertion in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times.

“We approached it as if we were in empathy with the shopper,” said Ronnie Cooke, vice president and creative director of advertising. “It’s fun to receive, but it’s torture to buy.”

The guide contains gift ideas, recipes and tips on etiquette.

“It has had a great impact on traffic and sales,” said a Barneys executive. “People are reading it in the store and buying products that are featured.

Saks Fifth Avenue believes repetition leaves a lasting impression.

“We’re trying to break through the clutter with the consistent use of Santa,” said Sheri Wilson-Gray, senior vice president of marketing at Saks Fifth Avenue.

The store chose an illustration of Santa from the book “Santa Claus” by William Joyce. The image appears in print ads, on the cover of the store’s Holiday Folio catalog, in Saks’ Christmas windows and on shopping bags.

Through Christmas, such celebrities as Dominick Dunne, Martha Stewart, Brooke Shields and A. Whitney Brown will read passages from the book over loudspeakers at the front of the store.

“That’s an outreach to the pedestrians walking along Fifth Avenue,” said Wilson-Gray. “It’s a way to draw them in.”

Charivari sent out a music CD to 1,000 of its best customers.

“Everyone always gives us compliments on the music we play in the stores,” said Jon Weiser, president, who can also be heard talking about the stores in a radio commercial.