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Duel for holiday sales cranks into high gear

The slim tunics and velvet blazers on Wal-Mart's clothing racks this holiday season are more than the latest trendy fashions -- they're a sign that the intense competition between the world's largest retailer and its upscale discount rival is ratcheting higher.

There are other indications that Target Corp. has put pressure on Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Wal-Mart will open its doors at 5 a.m. Friday, the official start of the holiday shopping season; that's an hour earlier than during past holiday seasons. It's also promising to match competitors' prices on specific merchandise that day.

''This is the most aggressive Wal-Mart I have seen in 10 years," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, S.C.

Wal-Mart stumbled last holiday season when its discounts weren't big enough to satisfy customers and its stores lacked must-have items including iPod music players. Target has been less generous with discounts, charging more on toys than Wal-Mart and Toys ''R" Us Inc., said Sean McGowan, an analyst at Harris Nesbitt.

Target warned that sales from stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales, are tracking well below its 4 percent to 6 percent growth forecast for November. Wal-Mart has held to its November sales growth forecast of 3 percent to 5 percent.

''Overall, things are changing," said Gail Lavielle, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman. ''We have to be relevant to a broad range of customers." But Target appears to be unfazed.

''We feel we will be absolutely competitive with Wal-Mart and the rest of our competitors," said Lena Michaud, a Target spokeswoman. ''Our marketing is just starting."

Target, whose stores will open at 6 a.m. on Friday, is reprising one of last year's marketing gimmicks, a wake-up call to shoppers that they can arrange in advance. This year, it's also adding tuck-in calls, which customers receive the night before the big shopping day.

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