Wal-Mart will put "Christmas" back into the holidays this year, the retailer plans to announce Thursday.
A year after religious and other groups boycotted retailers, including Wal-Mart (WMT), for downplaying Christmas, the world's largest retail chain will have an in-your-face Christmas theme this year.
"We, quite frankly, have learned a lesson from last year," says Wal-Mart spokeswoman Linda Blakley. "We're not afraid to use the term 'Merry Christmas.' We'll use it early, and we'll use it often."
Wal-Mart told about 7,000 associates of the plans at a conference last month and "was met with rapturous applause. ... We know many of our customers will feel the same," says John Fleming, Wal-Mart's executive vice president of marketing.
Fleming says the retailer, which recently lowered prices on toys and electronics, will be pitching Christmas almost as much as "value" to holiday shoppers.
New this year:
• A TV ad trumpeting Christmas will air for the first time next week. Wal-Mart also will air TV ads along with the Salvation Army mentioning Christmas.
• The name of the department with Christmas decorating needs will change from The Holiday Shop, which it was for the past several years, to The Christmas Shop.
• Store signs will count down the days until Christmas, and Christmas carols will be piped throughout the season.
• About 60% more merchandise will be labeled "Christmas" rather than "holiday" this year over last.
The Christmas spirit is spreading. Macy's, the largest U.S. department store chain, plans to have "Merry Christmas" signs in all departments. All of Macy's window displays will have Christmas themes. At New York's Herald Square, the theme will be "Oh, Christmas Tree."
"Our intention is to make every customer feel welcomed and appreciated, whether they celebrate Christmas or other holidays," spokesman Jim Sluzewski says.
As at Wal-Mart, Macy's employees are encouraged to consider wishing customers holiday greetings that are appropriate to their race or religion, including Happy Kwanzaa or Feliz Navidad.
Sometimes, even the best intentions can backfire. The Catholic League, one of the groups fighting what it calls the Christmas Wars, says a member alerted it that Macy's was pitching a "Happy Hanukkah" gift card but not a "Merry Christmas" one.
After he was contacted by the group, Sluzewski determined a production "glitch" meant the Merry Christmas gift cards were available everywhere but in its Western region, where there were plenty of Happy Hanukkah gift cards.
"We are correcting the problem," Sluzewski says. "Of all the cards to have a glitch with."