Monday, December 8, 2008

A Bunch of Chrismas Creep: How Starting the Season Early Doesn't Yield Intended Results

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The topic of this posting has been floating around in my head since September when I saw the first Christmas trees and holiday decorations out on display at my local Home Depot store. Ah yes, early fall was my first, 2008 sighting of the infamous “Christmas Creep." According to Wikipedia, “Christmas creep is the commercial phenomenon of merchants and retailers exploiting the commercialized status of Christmas by moving up the start of the holiday shopping season. The term was first used in the mid 1980s.” Every year this exploitation seems to occur earlier and earlier in the season. We see retailers tangling Jack-O-Lanterns and monster masks with evergreens and snow globes, mingling turkeys and pilgrims with nativity scenes. Christmas in November, then October, then September, and now some reports say this year it was extended to August? What happened to Christmas in December??? I mean we all joke about Christmas in July, but the way things are going, maybe next year we'll see just that. Surfing Santas anyone?

As a consumer –and- a marketer, Christmas Creep is one of my biggest marketing pet peeves. And it appears I am not alone. Peruse message internet boards and articles about the topic and you will find massive numbers of consumers complaining about “creeping” retailers. Some threaten not to shop at the first store they see with Christmas decorations up before Halloween or Thanksgiving. One poster writes: “It’s insulting…and they need to be boycotted. It completely ruins any given holidays because the holidays no longer represent a specific time of the year. If Christmas is 24/7 365 days a year, why bother doing anything about it?”

When we think about the marketing reason behind starting the holiday season early, we understand that retailers are attempting to influence consumer buying behavior. For example, last year The New York Times quoted several retailers regarding why they had put out Christmas decorations in October. L.L. Bean's spokesperson stated: "It's safe to say there is always anxiety. [The ad] serves the marketing purpose. It gets people thinking that the holiday is coming." But does it really? Consumers aren’t stupid. They know Christmas falls at the end of December every year, no matter when the retailers put up their decorations. So, with that said, has Christmas Creep really yielded the desired results? Many of us would argue it hasn't done anything other than annoy consumers and dilute the holiday spirit.


The National Retail Federation (NRF) conducts holiday surveys every year and defines holiday retail sales as sales in November and December. Looking at past data, today is no different than it has been over the past four years: around 40% of consumers say they’ll start their holiday shopping in October or earlier. Additionally, data collected since 2002 shows ~30% of consumers will have 10% or less of their shopping completed by the second week in December. In other words, people who tend to start early and plan their shopping will continue to do so and the Christmas Creep isn’t convincing holiday shopping procrastinators to start buying presents any earlier in the season. Finally, if we look at U.S. Census data, we see that total retail sales (excl. motor vehicle and parts dealers and food services) for November/December from 1998-2007, have consistently been in the 17% range. If you look at sales from October through December, they’ve consistently been in the 25% range and from September through December in the 33.5% range. In other words, Christmas Creep doesn't appear to be doing much to encourage consumers to spend more or buy earlier.

In March 2006, Wharton Marketing Professor Stephen Hoch wrote about Christmas Creep. "Are consumers going to revolt against it? No. Will it get people in a holiday mood? No; people will get in the holiday mood during the holidays. Does it give retailers a chance to set displays up sooner? Sure. Does it make stores more crowded? Yes. Decorations and special displays tend to make stores cluttered and hard for shoppers to move around." His article also quoted Herb Kleinberger, a partner and retail store practice leader at IBM Business Consulting Services. Klinberger stated: "Jumping the gun too soon can create an emotional pushback. In a certain sense, the consumer has to be emotionally ready to shop, and that may not happen until the weather [becomes colder]." In other words, your panic to turn your store into a Winter Wonderland in August could end up alienating shoppers.

So what should retailers be doing INSTEAD of putting up holiday decorations months before Christmas and calling early-bird sales "Holiday Sales." They should be working to identify some important consumer insights and determine what drives consumer behavior. For example, why do holiday procrastinators behave as they do? Lorraine Cohen, Life Strategist and author of the Powerfull Living blog, notes seven reasons why people procrastinate: Fear of success or failure, lack of desire, no inspiration, loss of momentum and motivation, negative self-talk and beliefs, overwhelmed by too many options, and too many distractions/loss of focus. In other words, a holiday shopping procrastinator is probably someone who can’t decide what they want to purchase, thinks there are too many choices (which causes them confusion and makes them feel overwhelmed), they don’t know where to start, and they don’t like shopping to begin with and are hence delaying the pain by shopping late. Knowing these insights, any decent marketer should be able to come up with ideas of how to appeal to this particular consumer set -and- potentially get them to both spend more money and shop earlier in the season. So with that said, I am personally challenging all you "Christmas Creepers" out there. In 2009, prove to us you know how to execute a pull rather than a push marketing strategy, show the consumer you actually understand them, and finally, quit acting like the people you want to purchase your products aren't intelligent!

To conclude, it's refreshing to see that not all retailers have jumped on the Christmas creep bandwagon. Some of you may recall Nordstrom's 2007 ad: “At Nordstrom, we won’t be decking our halls until Friday, November 23rd. Why? Well, we just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time. From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving. Nordstrom will be closed Thanksgiving Day. On Friday, our doors will open to welcome the new season.” Their company policy dictates this and I am pleased to report they followed it to a "T" again this year. "Merry Christmas" to that!

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