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Shoppers have probably noticed Christmas displays going up in stores already and are wondering: is it too soon? Adjunct Professor Kirstin Appelt of Sauder’s Marketing and Behavioural Science Division explains why the strategy pays off for retailers.

Kirstin AppeltIs Christmas coming earlier every year?

A lot of people think Christmas displays come earlier and earlier every year – they call it “Christmas creep” – but actually, it’s a tale as old as time. Since the 19th century, stores have been putting out ads and displays as early as August. It actually starts around the same time every year. We just have this perception that it’s earlier: the myth of Christmas creep.

Why do stores put up their Christmas displays when it’s still summer?

It’s a time-tested strategy that really works. Essentially, it’s a ‘different strokes for different folks’ thing, as you can consider three different consumer segments: roughly one third are already excited about holiday shopping, one third of people are annoyed by these early Christmas displays and another third don’t care one way or another. But retailers know there’s really no downside for the people annoyed by the early displays: they’re not angry enough to take their dollars to another store. They just ignore them until they feel ready to join in.

And for the enthusiastic third of consumers who want to start Christmas shopping as soon as they can, there’s a huge upside. As it happens, roughly 20 per cent of consumers start their Christmas shopping in September and 40 per cent by Halloween.

So is it just to win over the Christmas fanatics?

Even when it’s more rational to wait for something better, people tend to be impatient and worry about not being able to get what they want if they don’t seize the opportunity straight away. Humans have this biological need to want things right now – whether it’s good or bad.

I’ve done multiple studies on choosing between getting something now, or getting it later – whether it involves anticipation or dread. For the people who really like Christmas, there’s the warm, fuzzy, anticipatory glow of planning and shopping for Christmas, so the earlier you start, the more you get to enjoy that. But early starts can even be good for people who dread Christmas shopping, as they want to get it over with as soon as possible.

Early holiday marketing is also good for the business-to-business segment, which for the bigger box stores is really important. A lot of businesses decorate for the holidays and do holiday shopping for their employees, so for those businesses to put up their displays on time, someone else has to be selling the Christmas wares early. There are industry shows for Christmas goods as early as January, so it’s really being marketed year round, just to different segments of the market.

Also, slow and steady wins the race. From the sales perspective, there’s research showing the value of mere exposure – the more you’re exposed to something, the more demand you have for it. The longer season piles up the cumulative demand. Plus, slow and steady is a lot easier for business planning than having to completely turn over your stock and hire new employees for a month-long holiday rush.

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