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Finding stories in burnt-out Christmas lights and other holiday loose ends

christmas tree

By Flickr user John Morgan

With the faint sound of sleigh bells drawing near, it’s time to start thinking about business stories that don’t involve jolly elves, gift wrap, credit-card debt and roast turkey.

But first, there are a few fun loose ends to Holiday Shopping 2011.  If you’re looking for a festive feature, try one of these ideas:

Layaway angels.  A new twist on the perennial “anonymous Santa” story; mystery donors are paying off the layaway accounts of struggling or low-income people at Kmart and other stores nationwide.  It seems to have gone viral as those with means seek to provide an unexpected break for those with less.  Might be fun to poll your area stores – Main Street merchants and independent businesses as well as the big chains – about any other random acts of kindness they have witnessed.

And one wonders if marketing gurus are licking their chops over this idea; what a great way to stimulate business for your store – have a “holiday miracle” take place there.   In fact, I noticed last week that Walmart has “partnered” with the Today show to do a package of feel-good holiday stories that end up with the beneficiaries being taken to their local Walmart for a shopping spree.  It’s interesting that these PR campaigns seem to focus lately on helping individuals rather than corporate gifts to community foundations, the Salvation Army and other agencies.  Again, a good topic there is still time to tackle – how do companies get the most bang for their charitable buck and which companies successfully used Christmas this year to burnish their own image?

Retail marathons.   They’re under way at Toys R Us and Macy’s; possibly elsewhere.  Other stores are having super-extended hours.  But does anyone really nip out for sweaters, gloves and stocking stuffers at 2 a.m. or so?  Get your local store managers to drill down, if they will, and give you some examples of actual sales taking place in the wee hours, relative to the cost of keeping doors open.  Even if they balk at dollar amounts and other proprietary information, surely they can offer examples of merchandise that’s been checked out after midnight.  Or, if you can, stake out the parking lot for a while and get info from the shoppers themselves as they return to their cars.

The local Macy’s executive was on TV here saying that the overnight shift was totally voluntary and that fun things like pajama parties and such are planned for workers.  I could’nt help but wonder if any other nearby businesses, from diners to pizza joints to gas stations, benefit from these marathons.  And of course, this story naturally leads into a workplace piece about those who work the holiday as a matter of course, from health care venues to movie theaters to restaurants.  It’s another perennial but in an era of scarce jobs, expiring unemployment benefits and other woes, you might find a new twist among those couning their blessings to have work on Christmas Day.

I also wonder how those photo-with-Santa concessions fare in the era of cell phone cameras and easy digital home printing.  Has their approach changed, or has demand waned?  How has the business model of the mall Santa morphed in the 21st century?  Talk with some weary elves and shopping center managers about how this season shaped up.

The post-holiday bump.  We know that gift-card recipients will be racing around Dec. 26 to cash in their loot, but what else is hot next week?  My local big-box general merchandise store already has consolidated the holiday decor and created long rows of plastic tubs and other organizing aids, as has an area hardware store.  You could produce an amusing feature by talking to these more pedestrian retailers about the rapid shift from frivolity to practicality as the holiday wanes and the “new year, new you” organizing mania takes hold of consumers.   Cleaning companies, organizing experts, handyman services — they might be revving up to help clear the post-holiday clutter as well.

What happens to all this junk?  In a previous post I mentioned that talking with recycling companies and waste haulers about holiday trash could provide a different perspective; The Atlantic has used a similar idea to produce this fascinating story about the U.S. metals recycling industry based on the fate of burned-out holiday light strands.  “The Chinese town that turns your old Christmas-tree lights into slippers” is a really clever piece and an example of how following the lifespan of a humble item can really turn into a substantive look at an industry or even a national economy.

In Beats, Economy, Featured, Green | Sustainability, Retail | Lifestyle, Story ideas.

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