Uneasy retailers try to jump-start holiday season

November 08, 2005|By COX NEWS SERVICE

ATLANTA -- On Halloween, a sight at Lenox Square Mall struck fear in the heart of Andrea Blackwood.

The 32-year-old mother of two gasped when she saw it.

Santa's chair.

"Literally, I was like, `I can't believe this. They can't be doing this already,'" said Blackwood. "It was Halloween day."

Never mind that pumpkins still sit on our doorsteps, or that we've barely recovered from our Halloween sugar highs - retailers are ready and raring for Christmas.

They're jingling bells, hiring seasonal workers, setting up Santa stations and advertising like mad in hopes that consumers will start their holiday shopping now - well before the traditional start to the holiday shopping season.

Target Corp.'s red, green and silver snowflakes are dangling above merchandise marked as "savings for the season." Television ads tout sale prices for Christmas ornaments, lights and fake trees at Garden Ridge Corp.'s 35 stores. And Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s holiday-related advertising campaign is under way.

Wal-Mart says customers prefer it this way, and that the jump- start gives the company more time to educate and attract shoppers. Industry experts believe another force may be at work: It's been a pretty rocky year for retailers - natural disasters and volatile energy prices are keeping consumers cautious - so the companies want to make as much as they can, as quickly as they can.

Some consumers respond well to this Christmas-comes-early approach. About 37 percent of shoppers say they'll start buying for the holidays this month, according to the National Retail Federation and BigResearch LLC, a market research company in Worthington, Ohio.

But shoppers like Blackwood are a bit overwhelmed by the sight of twinkling lights and reindeer before Thanksgiving. Mind you, she's no Scrooge. She loves the holiday. Her dog, after all, is named Merry Christmas. But it's simply too soon for holiday shopping and the stress it brings.

The Christmas-comes-early approach is, to some consumers, "season treason," according to a report by Yankelovich, a market-research firm based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

"Confronting [consumers] with seasonal merchandise far ahead of schedule may feel like marketing bombardment," a recent Yankelovich Monitor Minute report says. "Thirty-six percent report less enjoyable shopping experiences because of all the pressure to buy."

Nordstrom Inc., for one, has a policy of "celebrating each holiday in entirety before moving on to the next," said John Bailey, spokesman for the upscale department store chain. "Our holiday decorations will not be up until after Thanksgiving."

Most retailers, though, are trying to encourage shoppers to get a head start. The average consumer is expected to spend $738.11 this holiday season, a 5.1 percent increase over last year, according to the National Retail Federation. Overall, shoppers are expected to spend about $435 billion during the season, up 5 percent from 2004.

"Consumer spending levels have remained relatively steady over the past several years, which should point to a positive holiday season again this year," said Jackie Fernandez, partner-in-charge of the Los Angeles retail practice of Deloitte & Touche LLP, which conducted its own holiday-shopping survey.

Blackwood, for her part, doesn't expect to start holiday shopping until well after Thanksgiving. "One holiday at a time," she said.

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