LET THE SHOPPING BEGIN

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An initial look at the holiday shopping scene finds much less of the panic "sale" frenzy that dominated retailing the last few seasons. Stores aren't into the "lowest prices anywhere" shouting match-for now, at least.

One reason may be predictions of cheerier consumers. An Arthur Anderson & Co. survey indicated almost three out of four consumers plan to spend more for holiday gifts this year than they did a year ago.

But there are other factors. Toy marketers this year are big in the low-price stocking-stuffer category, especially with action toys. A Hasbro executive predicts "exceptionally high interest in promotional toys under $20." In that arena, comparative pricing is not as big a draw.

Also, retailers seem ready to woo the customer in-store rather than in advertising. Promotional items are featured to bring the customer in, and it will be up to sales clerks and in-store ambiance to trade them up and load them up. As an example, Sears this year is using a soft-sell umbrella theme, "Where wishes come home for the holidays."

Traditional media advertising may take lumps if this plan works. Trade deals, tie-in promotions and in-store merchandising become more important in the marketing mix. Of course, overstocks, bad weather or competitive pressure could upset these plans. But for now, retailers seem to think Santa's bag is much fuller this year.

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