NEW YORK - This year, dads are battling it out with moms for their loved ones' wallet.
The nation's major retailers are turning their attention to Father's Day, which has long lagged behind Mother's Day among the most important holiday sales periods. By expanding shopping hours and advertising earlier and more aggressively for Father's Day - which is Sunday - merchants are hoping to provide a big sales boost during summer's lull.
Sears Holdings Corp.'s Sears, Roebuck and Co. stores declared June the season for dads, elevating it to a ''Christmas-like status,'' according to Corinne Gudovic, a company spokeswoman. The retailer recently dispatched caroling dads who sing holiday jingles with Father's Day themes - ''O' Plasma Screen'' - at malls in the New York and Chicago area. It broke its Father's Day ad campaign on June 4, earlier than a year ago and is offering a Father's Day gift card for the first time.
Meanwhile, Home Depot Inc., the nation's largest home improvement merchant, expanded its Father's Day advertising beyond circular ads this year, launching a TV and online advertising campaign. It's also pushing a wider array of gifts beyond the tool kit to include grills and pressure washers.
''This year, Father's Day is very important and very opportunistic,'' said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group Inc., a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. ''But with that comes greater risk. You have to spend more to market and you have to risk more with greater inventory.''
But retailers are willing to take such risks, worried that higher gas prices and inflation will keep shoppers away this summer and reverse a solid trend in consumer spending this year. Merchants see Father's Day as the last big sales opportunity before the back-to-school season kicks off in August.
According to the National Retail Federation's survey of 7,000 consumers, shoppers plan to spend $9 billion on Father's Day gifts, up from a planned $8.2 billion a year ago. Still, that lags behind Mother's Day, with sales expected to reach $13.8 billion this year, up from $11.4 billion, based on a consumer survey. Mother's Day is the third biggest holiday sales generator, behind the winter holiday and back-to-school seasons; Father's Day is sixth, with Valentine's Day and Easter ranked as fourth and fifth, respectively.
According to NRF, the average person plans to spend $88.80 on dads, compared with $122.16 for moms.
Mike Boylson, chief marketing officer at J.C. Penney Co. Inc., estimated that Father's Day spending accounts for two-thirds of Mother's Day sales.
J.C. Penney is opening its doors at 8 a.m. Saturday, an hour earlier than a year ago. It is hoping to bring customers in with an increased assortment of gifts beyond ties and shirts to include iPod accessories and handheld games.
Cohen said Father's Day has lagged behind Mother's Day because buying for dads is a lot harder than buying for mothers. Men usually go out to the store and get what they want. Women traditionally buy what they want too, but they also like to wait around thinking about a gift someone can get them.
Furthermore, stores have traditionally done a better job packaging Mother's Day gifts, but that's changing this year, according to Leigh Zarelli, vice president of merchandising at Gifts.com, which offers free advice on the best gifts online and has 200 retail partners. She noted merchants like Mrsfields.com and The Orvis Co. Inc. are offering more attractive Father's Day gifts this year. Gifts.com began promoting Father's Day the day after Mother's Day this year, five weeks earlier than last year.
Some merchants are already noticing their stepped-up efforts are paying off, reporting increased sales over a year ago.
Jeff Gillette, director of merchandising for Mrsfields.com, said that the company is seeing double-digit sales increases for Father's Day gifts from a year ago as a result of its expanded offerings. He's hoping such increased sales will help close the gap between Mother's Day and Father's Day business.