Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Retailers woo holiday spenders earlier

July 7, 2014

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How are we spending our summer vacation?   Prepping for back-to-school, Thanksgiving and Christmas, if the displays in retail stores are any indication.

Consumers who didn’t buy their swimwear back in March probably found themselves picking through a clearance rack featuring a few “size 2 junior” mismatched bathing suit bottoms and tops the week before the Fourth of July.  That’s been standard for years, in the inscrutable ways of apparel stores.

But it was still a jolt on July 5, when I nipped out for a few quick errands, to see the dregs of the patriotic housewares and summery garden décor relegated to a few sparsely-populated clearance aisles at one of the major craft and sewing retailers.  Front and center was harvest-themed merchandise from dish towels to wall plaques, and the entire floral area was dominated by an autumnal palate, ceramic orange pumpkins and cornstalky fall foliage.

OK.  On to a big-box office supply retailer, where back-to-school mania was in swing.  And clicking through the TV line-up for a lazy weekend movie, the chick-lit channels were featuring holiday movies 24/7 for that festive Christmas in July feeling.

AdAge said June 20 “Get ready for Christmas creep: Walmart starts highlighting hot holiday gifts,” and notes that the world’s largest big-box chain already has held its holiday media event.

And WFIE in Indiana just reported “Retailers offering back to school sales earlier than ever before,” while the Harford Courant reports on Target’s new online gift registry for college-bound students. And its not just big-boxers licking their chops over sales of dorm-room décor and new notebooks; a business-to-business website asks its audience  “Is your small business targeting the college crowd?” and suggests that local merchants and service providers use tactics like loyalty discount cards and personal service to woo spenders.

A mid-year check-in on the so-called “creep” and how businesses are racing to beat one another to seasonal shopping dollars is an interesting and picturesque biz feature to pursue.

On a broader economic tack, quizzing retailers and other businesses about their expectation for the coming fourth-quarter consumer spending mania (back-to-school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other winter observances) is a way to check up on your local economy.  With unemployment ticking down, the stock market on a record roll, home sellers getting a decent buck for their properties and other measures of prosperity gaining, will 2014 be the year they’ve been waiting for since 2007?  Or will the fact that job growth is dominated by low-wage and part-time positions dampen demand; as Bloomberg noted following a disappointing May report, “Restrained consumer spending curbs U.S. growth optimism.”

Ask local merchants specifically how pending orders and inventory compare to their investments in previous years, are they expecting consumer demand to grow this year?   Are they stocking more high-end versions of their goods?  Planning any different promotions?   Hiring more help?

Travel bookings, resort reservations, catering and restaurant bookings/inquiries, reservations at inns and bed-and-breakfast homes (particularly during holiday festivals and home tours, if your area holds them) all might be telling bellwethers of consumer sentiment.

A different tack would be to ask: What is it about the consumer that we can hardly wait for a season to be over when it’s barely begun?  After all, the stores wouldn’t be offering this stuff if we weren’t buying it.  Who IS purchasing her Thanksgiving tableware in mid-July, and why?  Are they worried about narrowing selections later, or just uber-organized, or what?   Are back-to-school shoppers trying to stretch necessary purchases over several paychecks?  A couple of years ago, CNBC reported that “Despite the scorn, consumers embrace ‘Christmas creep,’ – the article offers some interesting insights and sources.  You can talk with marketing experts, consumers themselves, even consumer behavior experts at area business schools and social research departments. Are we responding to signals sent by merchants, or are they responding to us?

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