Why Do Retail Holiday Displays Go up so Early?

October 18, 2018|Posted in: Uncategorized

Just to be clear, I stand firmly in line with the people who start complaining around this time every year about “Christmas creep”: stores putting out Christmas displays before Halloween or earlier. Having said that, I’m not one to do much of the actual complaining myself; I don’t like it, but having worked in retail, I get it.

That whole “Black Friday” thing? To most consumers, it’s just another word for “sale,” but it is deadly serious to retail folk, who quite often operate in the red until the day after Thanksgiving. Those fantastic bargains you scoop up every year are just loss-leaders: their real job is just to get you into the store so you’ll buy stuff the merchants profit from.

But if Black Friday is such a thing, why are store “puttin’ up reindeer/singing songs of joy and peace” before the first Jack-o-lantern is carved? Simple: it’s called priming the pump.

Get in the spirit (ready or not)

First, it’s helpful to know that for retailers and manufacturers, the boundaries for what constitutes the shopping season are very flexible. Analysts are trying to anticipate needs and supplies for what they figure will be the hottest items in January, and advertising firms are putting together ad campaigns by the end of spring.

It’s easy to see why: they have to have ad and commercials written, designed, approved, and created before the season even starts. Long before you start feeling like one more canned “parRUMPpapaPUM” will make you go postal, marketers are already sick of the holidays. They’ve done what they can; now the ball is passed to the retailers.

Halloween candy for Christmas

Believe it or not, retailers don’t really expect you to buy a lot of holiday decorations or presents before you toss out that wilted pumpkin. Some people will, of course; some people are obsessed with making sure everything is chosen, bought, and wrapped way before the Lions game on Thanksgiving Day.

I call them “people I categorically hate.” But I digress.

They’re not the real reason the displays are there, though. “Why are there Christmas decorations up when I’m just now thinking of Halloween?” is both the question and the answer: you’re not thinking about Christmas!” Face it: the only reason you know the displays are even up is because you waited until the last minute to think about Halloween, stopping by Sprawlmart to grab circus peanuts on your way home from work on the 31st. OK, fine.

But retailers can’t afford for you to do that with Christmas: their survival depends on you spending lots-o-money in the last quarter of the year. They want to make sure you’re thinking about seasonal gifts well in advance. And the more twinkling lights and menorahs you see, the more likely you are to remember that you haven’t gotten a present for Weird Uncle Hiram yet.

Selling more to break even

There’s another issue at stake here: post-holiday losses. If you’ve ever tried to return a gift the day after Christmas, you know what I’m talking about: the crowds are insane, and the lines are worse. All that profit the stores made during the holiday madness is now at risk of evaporating.

And it gets worse: retailers have to fear returns for months, even if they have time limits on refunds. They can deny returns, but customers can just call the bank and file a chargeback on their respective credit cards. At that point, merchants get screwed from both sides: they lose the sale price AND the merchandise. So to cover for all of that, stores have to move a huge amount of merchandise in Q4 just to make sure they break even in Q1 of the next year.

It’s not just greed

Like I said, I don’t like it either, but pre-Halloween Christmas displays in your local retailer’s window aren’t simply a matter of greed. Doesn’t mean greed doesn’t play into it, but for many, it really comes down to a matter of survival.