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Stores Nationwide Begin Holiday Season Early Despite Negative Reaction

By Candice Leigh Helfand
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A Christmas shopper walks past a store advertising a holiday-related sale at a mall. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

A Christmas shopper walks past a store advertising a holiday-related sale at a mall. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (CBS Connecticut) – “Christmas came early…”

The phrase has been used ad nauseam in feel-good news stories. However, it also seems to encapsulates a source of growing frustration among Americans – the ever-earlier presence of winter holiday decorations in stores throughout the nation.

With Halloween gone and the month of November just beginning, many are already seeing signs of Christmas, and even more have been seeing such signs for weeks.

In today’s Internet age, more people than ever are taking to social networking sites and online message boards to condemn the appearance of winter holiday indicators that they feel are appearing far too soon – public posts that demonstrate a long-held national frustration with the pervasive nature of excessively early holiday displays.

Why, though, does the concept bother people?

Dr. Ron Hill, who holds the Richard J. and Barbara Naclerio Chair in Business at the Villanova School of Business, hypothesized about a number of reasons as to why the phenomenon triggers such a negative reaction from American consumers.

“One is tradition. Holidays in and of themselves are often separated by some demarcation … in time,” he told CBS Connecticut. “The end of Thanksgiving is the proverbial start of the Christmas season. So people see this demarcation as being important in part because, when they overlap … it disallows people to fully engage in a holiday and enjoy themselves.”

In addition to tradition, Le Moyne College psychology professor Krystine Batcho mentioned the roles religion and nostalgia play in general enjoyment of the holiday season, and emphasized the emotional associations people have with both concepts.

“Saturating public space with earlier and earlier holiday fare is upsetting, because it violates and devalues the psychological role holidays play in our lives,” she said. “Their value depends upon their distinctiveness and special features. Earlier holiday décor separates us from the actual events that hold, and will hold, such emotional meaning for us.”

She added to CBS Connecticut, “The trend toward earlier widespread exposure diminishes their distinctiveness. They just aren’t very special anymore.”

Another element possibly in play is a reluctance to succumb to manipulation, another potential factor in overall American refusal to embrace the earlier onset of holiday-based advertising according to Dr. Laura Brannon, a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kansas State University.

“People see it as an attempt to manipulate them and get them to start shopping. People react against being told what to do or when to do it,” she said, adding that such a reaction is referred to as “reactance.”

Despite the negative and emotional reactions the practice triggers, however, owners of businesses big and small not only continue extending the holidays, but seem to inch them further forward every year; and it would appear they do so with good cause.

Even though people react poorly to it when discussing the idea, the displays still get people spending, and at higher rates than they would if stores opted to wait.

According to the National Retail Federation, 2012 saw an immensely profitable holiday season as stores experienced an overall sales increase of 3.5 percent, or $579.5 billion more in sales. The NRF predicts that this year’s holiday sales will increase even more.

“For some retailers, the holiday season can represent as much as 20 to 40 percent of annual sales,” researchers mentioned in the brief. “In 2012, holiday sales represented 19.3 percent of total retail industry sales.”

For the federation, the holiday sales season is considered to be the 61 days that comprise November and December, and includes holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Experts felt that, besides the bottom line, psychology may influence store owners as well in regards to when they set up holiday shop, both as far as their methodologies and their collective reasoning.

Brannon highlighted “agenda setting” – which she also referred to as “priming” – as one possible hopeful outcome of pushing holiday sales.

“Even if the media doesn’t influence people’s attitudes toward a candidate, for example, focusing a lot on the economy gets people thinking about the economy,” she explained to CBS Connecticut. “Similarly, stores are probably trying to get people into the shopping spirit by getting them to think about a shopping season.”

Hill touched upon a more tangible motivational concept that he referred to as “clicks versus bricks,” in which online and physical retailers compete against one another, leaving the latter potentially feeling “anxious” about how they will fare in a world where online shopping is becoming increasingly prevalent.

“They’re anxious to get the holiday season going. It’s a relatively short season and it earns them an enormous amount of money. So the competition is trying to get a jump-start on clicks, but people aren’t always ready to do it,” he explained. “That’s why they’re doing it. They want a jump on everyone else, online or otherwise.”

He added of the positive sales the practice can generate, “While most feel negatively toward it, some subset of the market is intrigued by it.”

The Federation’s facts and figures – calculated by using data from the United States Department of Commerce, the Federal Reserve and other authoritative bodies – align with Hill’s assertion.

“Each year, about 40 percent of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween,” they noted. “While most retailers do not begin holiday advertising until at least October or November, they recognize that many people like shopping early to spread out spending.”

NRF officials added, “As a result, many retailers are putting holiday merchandise on the shelves in September – specifically decorations and greeting cards, which many people buy months in advance.”

Additionally, Brannon agreed that competition plays a role in how stores design and execute their holiday marketing plans.

“Stores probably influence one another such that if one store is beginning to push Christmas items, other stores may follow along in order not to miss an opportunity for a sale. So the stores are socially influencing each other,” she noted. “The principle that if other people are doing it, you should do it also is termed ‘social proof.’ It’s a form of conformity.”

Still, public derision of early holiday advertising indicates the potential for alienation of customers with the practice if not executed tastefully.

“Given the displeasure so many consumers experience and voice, I expect that the practice might be counter-productive if it is overdone. At this time, business owners might ignore consumer complaints, because they feel that consumers have little choice,” Batcho said. “Holiday buying is so expected in our culture, that people feel obligated to buy gifts regardless of any irritation they might feel about early advertising.”

Batcho added, “Business owners might consider alternatives to earlier marketing … [such as] nostalgia, [which] can be capitalized on with retro packaging or by bringing back retro items in updated versions.”

Hill further noted, “Smart retailers will figure it out. They can do different things in different channels to find the optimal way to [handle the holidays]. No one seems to know what it is, but they aren’t going to be trying to pretend that online isn’t coming. If anything, it will come on stronger in the next 10 years. It doesn’t do them any good by just trying to get a jump. It’s not a good enough tactic.”

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