* 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 (Reuters) - Walmart will kick off its holiday sales rush at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, its earliest start ever, and will guarantee that those who line up can buy a trio of gadgets as it places a big bet that shoppers are ready to spend this holiday season.
The holiday season is critical for Wal-Mart Stores Inc , the world’s largest retailer, and its Walmart U.S. division. More than a quarter of its annual sales come during the holiday season.
“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.
Retailers are coming up with fresh ways to entice shoppers this year, as holiday spending is only expected to rise 4.1 percent, according to the National Retail Federation, down from 5.6 percent growth in 2011.
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.
While the holiday shopping season traditionally kicks off on the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, the push to sell Christmas presents and other items has been moving earlier and earlier in recent years.
Retailers say that shoppers want earlier deals.
“‘We got customer feedback that says ‘I like to shop earlier so I can go to bed earlier,’” Mac Naughton said.
Thanksgiving will be observed on Nov. 22 this year.
At 8 p.m. local time on Thanksgiving, Walmart’s offers will include deals on video games starting at $10 and home appliances such as a Crock Pot slow cooker and a Mr. Coffee maker 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.
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.
Other items to be offered during the night include brands such as Vizio, Samsung, Nikon, Nook and Beats by Dr. Dre.
“I think we have the brands that our customers want,” Mac Naughton said.
A variety of items from Goodyear tires to a Singer Sewing Machine go on sale at 5 a.m. on Black Friday.
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 Day and stay open overnight until 10 p.m. on Black Friday. Kmart has been open on Thanksgiving for the last 21 years.
In 2011, Walmart began with deals on toys, home items and clothing at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving, followed by electronics deals at midnight and other offers at 8 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 25.
Most Walmart stores will be open on Thanksgiving, unless they are required to close by local or state law.
Walmart has faced protests in various U.S. cities lately and some workers have planned to walk off the job on Black Friday. Such actions are being sponsored by groups including a contingent of workers called OUR Walmart that receives union support.