Quit Your Crying: Ads Become More Promotional as Christmas Nears

After Weather Woes and Tepid Sales, Retailers Hope Discount-Driven Marketing Will Incentivize Shoppers

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With two shopping days to go before Christmas, retailers are pulling out all the stops. They're extending hours, boosting social media offerings and amplifying marketing. And that marketing has shifted from more emotional messages to ads that scream deals.

Ad tracking firm ABX estimates that 93% of ads in the first half of December were promotional and product-focused, versus 91% for the same period last year. Retailers such as Kohl's, Target and Walmart, which had been running emotional spots in October and November drastically reduced their reliance on heart-tugging commercials in favor of more discount-driven marketing, ABX found. For example, after running a spot in November about a coach learning he will be a grandfather, Dick's Sporting Goods is currently promoting an ad with 50% discounts.

The change in tenor is unsurprising. Reatilers are dealing with tepid sales over the crucial Black Friday shopping weekend, as well as one of the warmest winters on record. For the week ending Dec. 19, total U.S. retail traffic was down 12%, compared with the year-earlier period, according to research analysts at Cowen and Co.

"We believe retailers are grappling with excess inventory, especially apparel, and expect the environment to remain highly promotional through January," read a recent research report from Cowen, which is forecasting as much as a 13% drop in store traffic for the fourth week of December.

Of the retailers on its list of top ads as of Dec. 15, Ace Metrix, an ad tracking company, found that "deals" and "great prices" were overwhelmingly present. PetSmart, JC Penney and TJ Maxx all weave the idea of savings and value into their current commercials.

In addition to more promotional marketing, retailers are ramping up their digital involvement with shoppers. In the first half of December, stores saw a 27% rise in social engagement over last year, driven by boosts on Instagram and Twitter, according to Shareablee, a social media analytics company. Stores are also increasing their brick-and-mortar store hours. Last week, Kohl's announced it will be open 170 hours straight from Dec. 17 through 6 p.m. Dec. 24 -- two more days than it was open last year.

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