Christmas: marketing, hints of hysteria …. and the odd bit of TV

In bleak economic times it is hardly surprising that most national retailers have been offering significant discounts in the run-up to Christmas.  Pre-Christmas sales account for a disproportionately large part of annual turnover for many businesses.  Marks & Spencer’s plea to other retailers this year to ‘hold their nerve’ and not discount fell on deaf ears.

At least one major electrical and computer national retail chain had a sophisticated series of adverts on TV offering 3-figure discounts and with a countdown of the days to Christmas Day, culminating on Christmas Eve with “you still have a few hours left to get a real bargain and make sure of the best Christmas ever” , or words to that effect..

Outdoor clothing retailers have been particularly hard-hit by the record warm temperatures in November with sales of winter clothing well down.  This resulted in bargain prices on even major brands in order to generate cash-flow to pay for the next batch of orders placed with manufacturers in China and to clear the racks and shelves ready for Spring deliveries.  Most shoppers respond to what the weather is now, not what it is forecast to be or might be.  But offers of ”an extra 30% off” were too good to miss.  Rather than blanket reductions (pardon the pun) at least one major outdoor gear retailer offered different discounts on different brands each day to keep you going back to get fleeced (again, pardon the pun, it is Christmas after all).  But if you had the time, and the stamina, and knew what things were really worth, there was good value for money to be had.

Another clever if somewhat morally cynical advertising ploy has been to recognise that people with financial pressures are becoming less inclined to be self indulgent and spend money on themselves.  So the marketing trick is to convey the message that it is both heart-warming and even virtuous to spend lots of money on others.  One advert portrays a young child eagerly waiting for Christmas morning not so he can open his presents, he leaves them at the end of the bed and rushes past them, the camera lingering on them fleetingly, and goes to his parents room where he hands over a huge gift-wrapped parcel.  Very heart-warming, very devious.

But by late Christmas Eve, when all stores had final shut up shop for The Duration, TV adverts had changed.  There is a new marketing ploy.  TV was suddenly not only advertising the post Christmas Sales beginning in-store on December 27, or even on Boxing Day, but making a feature of the fact that you could go on-line straight away and order yet more stuff at yet bigger discounts.  What better way to spend your Christmas Day than scouring the internet buying stuff.  It’s still midnight, you haven’t yet opened your presents and don’t know what you’re getting, so why not go and buy something.  The marketing tactic implies two things “buy it now before we sell out” and “satisfy your craving to part with your money …. you don’t have to give-up-for-Christmas”.  This latter is a particularly cynical marketing ploy given that in respect of some types of goods, especially furniture, it’s offered in conjunction with “ …. and pay nothing for 18 months and then interest-free for the rest 5 years” .  You don’t even have to part with cash, you can buy it on plastic and it won’t even hit your actual cash flow until well into the distant future by which time you’ll have a banker’s income.

Some of the big supermarket chains have begun opening ‘local’ shops now that they have succeeded in driving the old corner-shop out of existence.  Simply meeting the needs of communities you might think.  But not so.  The size of them is carefully chosen so that they fall below the limits set by the Sunday Trading Laws ….. which is why you will find them open on Sundays.  And on Christmas Day TV adverts were telling us that we can resume our food shopping on Boxing Day at theses outlets, just in case the cheese has gone off or we need more mince pies or the dog has munched his way through his rations.

This increasingly sophisticated marketing reflects the fact that there is less money available, and that there is increased nervousness about spending it in face of uncertainties about continuing employment prospects.  To my mind it also reflects an increasingly hysterical attitude among Big Retailers.  It looks as if they are spending more on marketing and advertising and offering bigger discounts.  They are looking at a brick wall and know they are on a collision course.

This analysis excludes bankers of course.  Their banks may continue to lose money or to just about stay in the black but bankers themselves still get their bonuses.  Therefore businesses focusing on niche markets like diamond encrusted neti pots will still do well.

I have to battle over this whole marketing stuff because my instinctive reaction is to be nauseated by all it all and take to the hills.  But it is the case that, if there is something I need, now could be the right time to buy it.  Three years ago at the beginning of the recession we bought a new carpet for the downstairs in the January Sales on the basis that “half-price carpet with an extra 70% off” was better than earning  ¼% interest on savings in the bank.  And I’ve just bought a couple of books on Kindle for 99 pence … money is no object!

Much of manufacturing these days is concentrated in China and other countries where labour costs are low.  Retailers buy it for pence and sell it for pounds, the mark-up is truly massive which is why the discounts are so massive.  But only for companies big enough to order in bulk and move stuff on the internet and through multiple store outlets across the big cities in the UK.  Local traders are going to the wall unable to price-match.

Just a brief mention of TV.  I spent Christmas Day with the family and no TV.  Peace and quiet apart from being trampled on by 4 rampaging grandchildren.  It was great.  I saw bits of programmes over the last 3 days but frankly the majority of programmes were unwatchable rubbish. One Channel seemed to have been given a boxed set of the complete Carry On films which it showed back-to-back. A line of dialogue did stick in my mind.  In one drama as the family TV was being re-possessed on Christmas Eve the character said: “I just want a typical Christmas, turn on the TV at 7 in the morning and turn it off at midnight”.  Hyperbole I know, but it has become part of the cliché of Christmas. However, a couple of programmes were well worth watching.

There was the Grumpy Guide to Christmas, some of it a bit close to blasphemous disrespect for me but by and large it hit the spot.  With BBC iPlayer you can catch it at:

Another was a remake of a Christmas Carol with Ross Kemp, playing on his hard-man persona but showing his acting skills too.  This makes the point that repenting of your misdeeds is not just about changing what you do but involves a complete change of heart.  Again at:

The third programme was late night Christmas Eve, really at 01.00 Christmas morning.  It doesn’t seem to be on ITVPlayer but if you can find it somewhere it’s very clever and very funny with a Who’s Who of British acting talent – The Flint Street Nativity.

But enough of the cyncicism.  To those who are reading this I offer Congratulations!  You have survived yet another long ramble.  And you have survived yet another Christmas.

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