The scariest retail trend this Halloween is the Christmas creep

Halloween’s over, and Christmas is right around the corner.

At least that’s how the retail gatekeepers of America’s ever-elongating holiday shopping season now see it.

Ebay and Walmart are already breaking out the tinsel this week with yuletide promotions. Meanwhile, Target has outdone them both by vowing to keep festivities within a respectable window (*at a small number of stores) and then immediately decorating its sales racks with an an odd mix of candy corn and canes days before it was even time to trick-or-treat. 

“There’s simply no reason to wait for Black Friday to find the best prices or top gifts this holiday season when shoppers can start AND finish early with eBay,” Ebay chief marketing officer Suzy Deering said in the site’s holiday deal announcement.

Groan as they may, customers appear to have adapted to this new normal. 

Once upon a time, Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) was meant to kick off the country’s Christmas consumerism frenzy. That notion was rendered quaint years ago as the big-money December holidays crept into Thanksgiving’s turf. Now, they’re elbowing their way past Halloween.

Every year, this forward march is justified by sheaths of market research claiming consumers want to get their shopping out of the way early (Does anyone plan to procrastinate?). And customers have indeed started to front-load their gift purchases in recent years, whether as a result or cause of the early marketing momentum, according to research firm NPD Group

There are plenty of other reasons for the early start beyond the obvious incentive to draw out the blockbuster profit period. A longer season can help avoid the sort of long store lines and shortages that wear consumers down. It also hedges against extreme weather events that can keep people from stores or delivery trucks from houses during the critical last-minute rush.

But there’s always a risk of driving customers insane with Christmas carols and ruining the seasonal spirit for everyone.

The phenomenon of Christmas creep is nothing new, of course. It’s been a cultural touchpoint at least since Charlie Brown walked into a department store during a 1974 Easter special to find that the aisles were already decked with wreaths. 

But the migration to online shopping has upped the stakes in recent years and made the final months of the year on which retailers rely most all the more crucial. 

Christmas has been creeping since at least 1974.

Christmas has been creeping since at least 1974.

Image: Screenshot

Traditional chains are unveiling a slew of creative new ideas meant to keep them competitive with online rivals this year as more consumers than ever are expected to move to the web. Target is offering an e-gift feature in which customers essentially pitch presents to their recipients, who, in turn, can customize the items or exchange them for something entirely different without the costly hassle of a physical return. 

The migration to online shopping has upped the stakes and made the final months of the year all the more crucial. 

Walmart says it will throw more than 20,000 holiday parties at its massive super-stores along with 165,000 product demos meant to give shoppers an experience they can’t find on the web. It’s also putting its two-day shipping and store pick-up options front and center for the first holiday season since it seriously stepped up its game against Amazon.

“We’re doubling down on in-store experience,’’  Walmart’s chief marketing officer, Tony Rogers, said in a press call on Tuesday. “We know what works during the holidays, and this year, we’re focused on delivering just that.”

Big plans like these have pushed the start of the season earlier than ever before. More than a third of retailers online and offline said they planned to start their holiday rollout a full month before they did last year, according to one survey.

Changes in buying habits have generally made consumers more impatient with their less frequent store visits, according to market data from Google. At a time when most product research is done on computers and smartphones ahead of time, customers want their shopping trips to be quick and painless, meaning that traditional retailers can’t afford to limit choices by waiting on the holiday season, according to the study.

Internet retailers simply risk less by launching their Christmas promotions earlier. 

There are also basic logistical reasons why more online shopping means an earlier holiday season. Internet retailers simply risk less by launching their Christmas promotions earlier. They don’t have to hire costly seasonal help; their holiday marketing is naturally more subtle; it doesn’t blare in their customers’ ears or offend their senses (a pro and a con depending on the situation)—and they don’t have to worry about considerations like limited shelf space. 

Groan as they may, customers appear to have adapted to this new normal. Data on Google search trends shows that interest in the Christmas holiday has first spiked increasingly earlier in October each year over the past decade.

Interest in Christmas is coming earlier and earlier among Google searchers.

Interest in Christmas is coming earlier and earlier among Google searchers.

Image: google trends

Whether that’s because they’ve had an early dose of Christmas cheer shoved down their throats in store aisles or they actually relish the chance to buy their Halloween costumes and their gift lists in one fell swoop is unclear. But in any case, the Christmas creep doesn’t show any signs of letting up.