It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas... in October

15 December 2011

According to Professor Areni, retailers put Christmas decorations up as early as possible to get people thinking about Christmas shopping
According to Professor Areni, retailers put Christmas decorations up as early as possible to get people thinking about Christmas shopping

The festive season has traditionally been a celebration of family, joy and giving thanks, but in recent times it seems that the tradition of giving thanks has been overshadowed by giving gifts, and the more the better.

Christmas is boom time for the retail sector, which is why they try to start things off as soon as possible, says Charles Areni, a Professor of Marketing at the University of Sydney.

"Overall, the aim is to get people thinking about Christmas early. The idea is simple enough - the sooner that you start buying gifts for Christmas, the wider the social network of people you buy gifts for, which translates into more retail revenue."

"If I'm shopping in October and none of these decorations are up and the mall is in its normal state, I might buy a pair of shoes that my son needs. But if there are Christmas carols playing, Santa's there and the store employees are dressed as elves, I'll think about buying a second pair of shoes to put under the Christmas tree as a gift for my daughter."

Retailers have fine-tuned a range of foolproof tactics to keep customers in the festive spirit from October until the end of the year, including decorations, Christmas songs, shop windows and the all-important annual visit to Santa.

"The Santa photo is pester power in action," says Professor Areni. "If you take your child shopping with you at the supermarket, you'll wind up putting 30 to 40 percent more in your trolley."
"The Santa effect is actually quite explicit. The child goes up and gives Santa a list of what he wants for Christmas, and Mum and Dad are expected to buy those things while they're there in the shop."

Music also has a range of profound and measurable effects on consumer behaviour and perception, Professor Areni says.

"Tempo, for example, tends to have a predictable effect on consumer behaviour. The walking speed of a shopper through a store mirrors tempo, and in restaurants or bars even the speed at which diners bring the fork to their mouths or the drink to their lips is affected by tempo."

Musical genre, major or minor key, and time period and nostalgia also have different effects on shoppers.

"Christmas carols are a very specific genre. They're in a major key, they have nostalgic value, they have a reasonably fast tempo - generally they're pretty happy. With Christmas carols it's very much about getting people to think about buying Christmas gifts, so they have a very specific purpose."

In addition, music is specially chosen to appeal to a shop's target market. If people like the music, they are more likely to stay longer in the shop - the longer they stay, the more likely they are to make a purchase or spend more money.

And if you find the relentless retail Christmas cheer annoying, the bad news is that it's going nowhere fast.

"There is absolutely a negative effect on some shoppers," says Professor Areni. "The reason that that's ok for retailers is that it's a more general negative sentiment. Which shop do you get angry with? They're all doing it.

"You can link that negative sentiment with the broadest one of all - if Christmas is supposed to be about love and caring and family, why do we have this commercialisation? But that's not likely to get directed to any specific shop or retailer, and so because it's the entire marketplace treating the holiday season this way, they get away with it."

The good news is that Christmas decorations are probably not going to go up any earlier. In the United States, Christmas decorations never go up until after Thanksgiving in late November, but no such barrier exists in Australia.

"Realistically the ultimate question is how early can you get somebody thinking about doing their Christmas shopping. For the average consumer, Christmas shopping in September is not a realistic proposition.

"I think we've reached the limit not because retailers are showing any kind of restraint, it's simply that the benefit they're seeking, which is to get people started on their Christmas shopping, is probably not realistic in September."

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