Wednesday, October 29, 2014

'Tis the pre-season

It's beginning to look a lot like some businesses in this town can't read a bloody calendar.

Today's date, as you may have noticed, is the 29th of October. That's two days before Halloween, and nowhere near Thanksgiving—which, back in the day, used to mark the last hurrah of fall before the frenzy of the "holiday season." The trees are ablaze with glorious fall color; the thermometer is at a balmy 74 degrees. Yet when you walk into my local drugstore, here's what greets you as you step through the door:

Rite Aid hasn't completely dismantled its Halloween display, which has been occupying a big part of the store's shelf space since some time around Labor Day. After all, with two days to go, there's still a chance some last-minute shoppers might stop in looking for candy or a few extra accessories for a costume. But even the pumpkins and witches' hats are having to share space with Santa and his merry band of snowmen:

The phenomenon of "Christmas creep," of course, is nothing new. I complained about it on this blog two years ago, and The Consumerist has an entire page devoted to it. Yet much as it annoys people like me, who want to be allowed to enjoy each season in its proper time without being constantly pushed ahead toward the next one, stores sound the Christmas starting gun earlier and earlier each year for one simple reason: because they have to. As Robert Frank explains in The Economic Naturalist, this is an example of an economic "arms race": retailers count on holiday shopping for a hefty chunk of their income every year, and they can't afford to lose any of those sales to a competitor who was ready before they were. So the minute one store decides to start flashing its stockings the week before Thanksgiving instead of the day after, all the others have to follow suit to avoid losing business. But then some other store is sure to think it might be able to gain an edge over its competitors by putting all the holiday merchandise out still earlier—and so on, and so on, until you end up with Christmas ribbons on display at Costco in July.

Frank emphasizes, however, that it's unlikely Christmas will just keep creeping backward until it encompasses the whole year. At some point, he argues, stores will find that giving up floor space to holiday displays costs them more money than it makes them, because they will be taking away space from other types of merchandise that shoppers would be more likely to buy in, say, March. Thus, if we consumers want to combat Christmas creep, the best thing we can do is refuse to play along. If enough of us simply refuse to buy anything holiday-related until after Thanksgiving, then stores will gradually start to find it's not in their interest to sell it.

In fact, I personally prefer to take it one step further and refuse to patronize any store that's currently displaying what I consider to be unseasonable merchandise. Of course, this is mostly for my own personal satisfaction, because I just can't stand to look at snowmen and reindeer in mid-fall. Still, I like to think that in some tiny way, I'm helping to combat Christmas creep by denying my business to stores that haul Rudolph out before Halloween, and toward ones that have appropriate seasonal displays instead. So in that spirit, I'm offering a shout-out to all the local businesses that are treating fall with the respect it deserves, including:
  • Our local supermarket, Stop & Shop, with its display of winter squash and fall mums. (Supermarkets in general are usually the last to hop on the Christmas bandwagon, because they're the one category of retailer for which Thanksgiving is actually a major holiday—which means, fortunately, that I can continue to shop for food during the month of November without being subjected to sleigh bells and Santa Claus.)

  • Our local liquor store, Pino's, with its cheerful arrangement of scarecrows and gourds. (I guess liquor stores are another type of retailer that gets some business out of Thanksgiving—though that hasn't stopped the Rite Aid, which makes a good portion of its money selling cheap booze to college seniors, from hopping on the tinsel truck.)

  • A high-end barbershop called Haven, which was a top competitor in last year's Holiday Tour of Highland Park, but which nonetheless is showing no unseemly haste to replace its seasonal display of fall leaves with something more wintry.

  • And lastly, a decidedly non-high-end business, the local dollar store, which is keeping its little scarecrows and ghosts front and center at least until Halloween is past.

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