â¿¿ MORE SHIPPING AND RETURN OPTIONS FOR SHOPPERS WHO COVET CONVENIENCE: About 44 percent of retailers are offering free shipping this year, a jump from 12.5 percent last year, said Vicki Cantrell, executive director of Shop.org, the National Retail Federation's digital retail division that tracks retailers' online offers. And UPS said retailers also are working to make returns easier by including return labels in packages or providing a link online that customers can use to print labels.
Additionally, some stores, including Best Buy Co., Toys R Us and Wal-Mart, are offering customers the option of ordering online and then picking up merchandise in stores.
Danny de Gracia, a political scientist in Honolulu, likes using that option to avoid the hassle and crowds in stores. Gracia, who said he plans to spend no more than $1,000 this holiday season, last used the service to buy a Sony digital camera for his father at Best Buy.
"It's an outstanding service that I utilize whenever possible," he said. "I wish that it would be available for groceries."â¿¿ LAYAWAY PLANS FOR FINANCIALLY-STRAPPED SHOPPERS: Shoppers have typically been charged a fee for layaway programs that allow them to pay over a period of weeks. But this year, Sears and discount chain Kmart, both divisions of Sears Holdings Corp., ditched the fees, which could be as much as $10 for 12 weeks. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. lowered layaway fees from $15 to $5. â¿¿ PRICE MATCHING FOR SHOPPERS WHO ARE ADDICTED TO DEALS: Small mom-and-pop stores long have offered to match the cheaper prices that customers find online, but this year big merchants such as Target and Best Buy will do the same. It's an attempt to combat the growth of "showrooming," when customers look at merchandise in stores but buy it cheaper online. â¿¿UPDATED SHOPPING APPS FOR SMARTPHONE-TOTING SHOPPERS: Shopping apps for smartphones and tablets have been around since shortly after the iPhone debuted in 2007, but this year retailers are beefing them up. For instance, Macy's is launching a Black Friday portion of its mobile app, which highlights specials and other deals not advertised elsewhere. It also will have maps and information about where in each store Black Friday deals can be found.