Christmas creep a trick and treat to boost Santa sales

Phil Rosenthal
Chicago Tribune

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Well, maybe not a lot, but enough. Holiday items are popping up in stores. Catalogs are showing up in the mail. The price cuts already have begun, and wise men eyeing year-end travel have looked to the skies and received signs their trips should already be booked.

Driving this Christmas creep are businesses dreaming of a bright Christmas, just like the ones they used to know. Market research shows a vast majority of us profess that it's ho-ho-horrible to edge into Jack Frost territory before the jack-o'-lanterns have ceded the stage. Tough tinsel.

Forget the snow, this is all about making it rain.

"You do see Christmas creep happening in some stores, but I wouldn't say it's a full onslaught of everybody all at once," said Jake Bailey, vice president of strategy for RichRelevance, a software company that helps retailers personalize shopping for consumers.

RichRelevance's just-released study of about 1,000 or so Americans found that 71 percent were "annoyed" or "very annoyed" to find holiday items in stores before Halloween, and 42 percent said they were less likely to buy from them as a result. Just 7 percent said they "like" or "love" the seasons bleeding together, with 5 percent said it made them more likely to start buying.

But consumer sentiment and consumer behavior aren't always in sync. It's like when voters complain about negative advertising, then elect the candidate who bad-mouthed most effectively.

The National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, has been saying for a while that more than 40 percent of holiday shoppers start to buy before Halloween. You may say you don't want it, but 'tis the season.

Only 12 percent of Americans say they "like" or "love" that stores get a jump on their big post-Thanksgiving sales by opening up on Turkey Day, according to RichRelevance, while 36 percent claim to "hate" it and another 26 percent "dislike" the practice.

Yet there obviously are enough people voting with their wallets for the stores to keep doing it, as Black Friday increasingly becomes Black November.

The National Retail Federation said this month it expects U.S. sales in November and December — not counting autos, gasoline and restaurant transactions — to increase 4.1 percent. If realized, that would be the first time since 2011 that retailers enjoyed holiday growth of more than 4 percent.

But countering that optimism according to this year's holiday outlook from PricewaterhouseCoopers, almost three-quarters of Americans say the economic environment is the same or worse than a year ago and 84 percent expect to spend the same or less on holiday shopping this year.

Priority put on prices

It's hardly surprising then that PwC would find 84 percent of the shoppers would then cite best prices as their chief criteria when it comes to buying gifts, up 10 percent from 2013.

This explains why we're already starting to see discounts, offers of free shipping and other concessions. Microsoft executive Yusuf Mehdi, announcing a limited-time price cut on Xbox One consoles, was quoted on the company's website as saying "fans don't have to wait for Black Friday this year to enjoy great savings."

RichRelevance's Bailey says it's clear from "talking billions of shopping sessions a year" that for consumers "researching for their Black Friday or just Christmas shopping in general, their planning begins earlier and earlier."

So those looking to plant their flag in shoppers' consciousness will move sooner and sooner, no matter how much those shoppers protest.

It's like the complaints that Chicago's WLIT-FM 93.9 hears when it switches to its all-Christmas music format from those who inevitably feel the temporary format change came too early. One year it was Nov. 2. No matter. The listeners show up. The 2013 switch came in mid-November and more than 3.2 million listeners tuned in, effectively doubling the audience of the No. 2 station in town.

Until Christmas creep loses its effectiveness, it's not going to end.

Not all tied to tradition

Besides, younger consumers less tied to traditions seem not to mind as much. Never mind my young daughter working on the fifth revision of her holiday wish list since Labor Day, millennials seem more accepting of seeing Santa stuff when they shop this time of year than older segments of the population.

"Maybe the millennials aren't bothered by it," Bailey said, "because they're too busy looking at their phones while they're in the store."

It won't be long before Rudolph, Comet and Blitzen fly past Columbus on the calendar. It's a new world, but you already discovered that.