* Walmart U.S. starting specials at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving
* Deals starting two hours earlier than in 2011
* Those in line guaranteed access to iPad 2, TV, Blu-ray
By Jessica Wohl
Nov 8 "Black Friday" arrives earlier than ever at Walmart this year, with customers barely getting to digest Thanksgiving dinner before holiday shopping kicks off at 8 p.m. local time.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc is loading up on electronic gadgets in a big bet that shoppers are ready to spend during the critical holiday season at its Walmart U.S. division. The holiday season generates more than a quarter of annual sales for the world's largest retailer.
"We bought deep, very deep, and we bought deep on items that matter to our customers," said Walmart U.S. Chief Merchandising and Marketing Officer Duncan Mac Naughton.
U.S. retailers are devising new ways to entice shoppers this year, as holiday spending is expected to rise only 4.1 percent, according to the National Retail Federation, down from 5.6 percent growth in 2011.
Bringing more shoppers into stores earlier on Thanksgiving, when most Walmarts are open, can boost sales.
"Economically it makes sense," said Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst at NBG Productions. "You're getting people into the store to buy your products earlier. If I look at what Walmart's doing here, they have led."
The holiday shopping season traditionally kicks off before dawn on the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday. But the push to sell Christmas presents and other items has been moving earlier and earlier.
Walmart kicked off layaway a month earlier than last year, in mid-September. Layaway allows shoppers to keep a product on hold at the store and pay for it over time. Chains such as Walmart and Target have already published toy catalogs.
Retailers are also targeting their best shoppers.
On Thursday, Sears said it would offer online access to many Black Friday deals to members of its "Shop Your Way" loyalty plan from Nov. 18 to Nov. 19.
The United States observes Thanksgiving on Nov. 22 this year.
At 8 p.m. local time on Thanksgiving, two hours earlier than it started deals last year, Walmart's offers will include video games starting at $10 and home appliances such as a Crock Pot slow cooker for $9.44 each.
Walmart also said it would guarantee that three items will be available that night to people standing in line in its stores between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Thanksgiving, though the items are not among the hottest new gadgets of the year.
Those shoppers are guaranteed access to an Apple iPad 2 16GB with Wi-Fi, a March 2011 version, priced at $399 with a $75 Walmart gift card; a 32-inch Emerson 720p LCD TV at $148, $80 below the usual price; and an LG Blu-ray player for $38 that Walmart does not typically sell but said goes for $68 to $79 elsewhere.
By offering a gift card with the regularly-priced iPad 2, shoppers feel that they are getting a deal, and Walmart can benefit later on.
"With the gift card, you get them coming back toward the end of the season, that's obviously one of the hooks to this," said Sozzi.
After a round of specials focused on electronics at 10 p.m. Walmart will take a break from special deals, giving shoppers a chance to get some rest or perhaps visit other stores.
Walmart now keeps its stores open overnight between Thanksgiving and Black Friday after an employee was trampled to death when a Long Island store opened on Black Friday in 2008.
Last year, key competitors including Target Corp began their special offers at 12 a.m. on Friday.
A variety of items from Goodyear tires to a Singer Sewing Machine go on sale at Walmart at 5 a.m. on Black Friday.
For the holiday season, Walmart customers will be able to view an interactive store map on the chain's mobile shopping application that lets them click on items to see the prices and where the products can be found in the store.
As more shoppers use the app's in-store mode added earlier this year they are less likely to leave without everything they were looking for, Gibu Thomas, Walmart's senior vice president of mobile and digital, said on Wednesday. Twelve percent of Wal-Mart's sales from its mobile app now come from consumers making online purchases when they are in the company's stores, he said.
Last year, Target, Best Buy, Macy's and Kohl's were closed on Thanksgiving and kicked off Black Friday sales at the stroke of midnight, their earliest starts ever. Best Buy Co Inc, Macy's and Kohl's all plan to open at midnight again, while Target has not given its plans yet.
Sears Holdings Corp's Sears and Kmart stores will be open on Thanksgiving Day. Last year, Sears kept its discount chain Kmart open on Thanksgiving but the Sears chain was closed.
This year, Sears stores will open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving and stay open overnight until 10 p.m. on Black Friday. Kmart has been open on Thanksgiving for the last 21 years.