It used to be that the kickoff for the all-important holiday season began right after Thanksgiving, but this year some consumers found themselves rooting through the Christmas candy to stock up for trick-or-treaters. The first to haul out the holly this year was home-improvement retailer Lowe's, which introduced its holiday campaign a full week before Halloween: Oct. 23.
Earlier than ever
"People are starting to shop earlier and they are tapping into that," said Bill Bruce, chief creative officer at BBDO, New York, Lowe's agency, which has a trio of other clients -- eBay, Dell and Campbell -- launching holiday-theme campaigns earlier than ever. "There is a group of us that wait until the week before to do the shopping but others are getting out there early. This is jumping on that behavior."
According to a recent survey by Big Research, 40.4% of consumers started to shop for the holidays this year before Halloween, up from 40.1% in 2005.
And for that, you can blame Wal-Mart. In 2005, the $312 billion retail colossus set the stage by moving the traditional post-turkey day kickoff for holiday ads up three full weeks to Nov. 1. It repeated the strategy this year, spurring a host of followers. Macy's almost seemed a latecomer by jumping its launch up a week to Nov. 13 after decades of kicking it off the week of Black Friday, as the day after Thanksgiving is known.
It's not just TV spots hitting early, but magazine ads. For the first time, Best Buy launched print ads in October issues, although it stuck to a Nov. 5 launch date. "It was a new strategy to reach out to women shoppers better and understanding they start shopping earlier and never finish shopping," said a spokesman.
Why retailers take out the tinsel early isn't much of a mystery. At stake is some $457 billion in holiday shopping dollars this year, expected to be up 5%, according to the National Retail Federation. Spending per shopper is expected to jump 7% to nearly $800.
Getting out early in the top-of-mind, at least theoretically, should help retailers log fatter margins. "It gets people in the mood to buy higher-margin stuff earlier in the season," noted Steve Spiwak, an economist at research firm Retail Forward. "But if a retailer waits too long, margin erosion will set in, especially with Wal-Mart out there [starting] early."
Wal-Mart's strategy this year, however, seems to turn that notion on its head. Just six days into its aggressive holiday campaign, the retailer slashed prices on 100 electronics.
Behind Wal-Mart's early launch is the fear of repeating a dreadful fourth-quarter performance in 2004. Last year, the Nov. 1 kickoff help the chain beat Target in November, but by December, Target had pulled ahead. And despite Wal-Mart's head start this year, Target remains unfazed and has yet to move up its launch date.
Early shoppers aside, not everyone is cheered by Christmas creep. Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Ralph Nader group critical of overactive marketing, called it "shrill."
'Race to the bottom'
"It's driving people nuts," he said. "Advertisers think in order to stand out they have to start earlier, but it's like a race to the bottom," he said. "There is a certain amount of holiday-hype fatigue that sets in."
Not all retailers are joining the early rush. Home Depot waited until today this year, and even then it worried about offending its customers.
"We want each holiday to have it's time. We thought going before Halloween could backfire on us," said Roger Adams, chief marketing officer. "We want to maintain the integrity of each holiday. If you got too early you can violate the sensibilities of the public and people can sometimes resent that."