I’m writing this post in early November and I’d like to be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas. Unfortunately, I’m sure some retailer has already beaten me to it. A recent headline in USA Today read, “Santa's becoming a September fixture” citing Christmas promotions beginning as early as July and August. It’s a retail phenomenon called Christmas creep and it’s pushing the envelope to see just how early we consumers can be triggered to start our holiday spending.
Griping about premature Christmas merchandising has become as much a part of the holiday season as eggnog and Bing Crosby. Sorry to add to the moan fest, but it makes me wonder why retail brands that claim to be “all about the customer” persist in promoting Christmas alongside their back-to-school sales when the practice is so widely criticized.
The start of the Christmas season is not an arbitrary date. I don’t mean to get sanctimonious about the whole thing, but there actually is a Christmas Season defined by the folks who brought us Christmas in the first place. No, not Coca-Cola. I’m talking about the various western Christian churches. They call it Advent and it starts on the fourth Sunday before December 25, the Sunday from November 27 to December 3 inclusive. Wikipedia defines it as, “ a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas.”
One retailer has chosen to take issue with Christmas creep: Nordstrom. This week several Facebook friends have posted a photo of a sign taken at a Nordstrom department store in early November 2009. It reads:
“At Nordstrom we won’t be decking our halls until Friday, November 27. Why? Well, we just like the idea of celebrating one holiday at a time. From our family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving.”
I like the Nordstrom brand. That made me like it more. Why? Because they have shown restraint. We all respect restraint and respond to it. But few marketers seem to understand its subtle power.
Restraint is probably the most under-rated brand attribute. It’s also the battleground where the sales vs. branding war is often waged. In that battle, sales push for tactics that foster short-term earnings, like Christmas merchandising in August, with little regard for how their activities might affect long-term brand sentiment. On the other side of the line, brand people are pushing for strategies that foster long brand equity to ensure that sales people will never have to compete on price alone.
You can’t blame either side in this skirmish. They are each doing what they are hired to do and contributing to the metrics against which their performance is measured and rewarded. It’s just a shame that most companies unwittingly pit the two sides against each other to their own detriment. The two functions need not be mutually exclusive.
Since 2007, Nordstrom has been showing us how.
Nordstrom would probably increase foot traffic and sales if they began promoting Christmas before football season like everyone else. So, should they? I guess the sales camp could make the case that Blake Nordstrom’s outmoded values are just getting in the way of grabbing his company’s fare share of America’s $450 billion holiday spend this year. I can’t argue with that. After all, what’s the ROI on earning people’s respect or keeping one of our most beloved holidays a little more special?
But look what happens to Nordstrom every autumn. Just when every retailer in America is jockeying for any edge to gain the attention of holiday shoppers we all start commenting on Christmas creep and how it seems to start earlier every year. Today, a lot of that commenting is done online and is collectively read by millions of people.
For instance, the photo I referred to above was a follow up to a story that originally appeared on the Consumerist blog in 2007 and has been widely circulated around the Internet every November since. Almost without exception it is followed by comments praising Nordstrom and vows of Holiday patronage. Then there are the hundreds of blogs posts like this one that are written about Nordstrom every yuletide.
And because whining about Christmas creep has gone mainstream, chances are your favorite major news outlet (like USA Today) will run a story about the retail phenomenon sometime between now and Christmas. And when they do, guess which one retailer will be canonized in that story? Just Google “Nordstrom Christmas Creep” and you’ll find 50 pages of content dating back to 2007 praising the retailer for their restraint.
After four years of holiday limelight and goodwill towards shoppers you would think the folks who manage the Nordstrom brand would feel pretty good about their decision to celebrate one holiday at a time. Evidently not.
Over those same four years, brick-and-mortar retailers have been facing increasing pressure. That makes management anxious. Anxious managers have a nasty habit of trampling all over brand values (like restraint) as they run down to the sales department for a quick fix to calm their nerves.
If you happened to be walking by Nordstrom’s flagship store in Seattle early this October you may have noticed the result: Clusters of red ribbons, pine boughs, and golden bells hovering over smartly dressed mannequins with headlines in off-red and off-green clearly referencing holiday themes like Jingle Bells and Joy. Wow. What a brand buzz kill.
The fact that Nordstrom has caved on its promise is not nearly as disappointing as the fact that their management denies having done so. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Nordstrom’s PR spokesperson rejected accusations the department store had reversed its policy claiming, “The window decor downtown is commemorating the upcoming social season — not the holidays.”
So, for the time being at least, it seems our last bastion of Holiday sanity has abandoned the principle of restraint, not to mention respect for the intelligence of its customers. I can relate with one commenter on the story who observed, “I wish I could boycott all retailers with Christmas/holiday decorations up prior to Thanksgiving but then I wouldn't have anywhere to shop!”
Sean Duffy spent 18 years with ad agencies in Boston, San Francisco, Copenhagen, and Stockholm before founding The Duffy Agency, an international ad agency, in 2001. Sean is director of TAAN Europe and a regular guest lecturer at the Lund University School of Economics. He is also a blogger, Twitterer and is on LinkedIn.