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Are Retailers Going After the Deathbed Market?


Ho, ho, huh? Last week I spotted my first holiday display right in front of my grocery store on September 12th. The powers that be at this major retail chain decided that just as we were ringing in the school bells and memorial bells for the victims of 9/11, we would welcome some holiday cheer, too. After all, summer is the perfect time to roll out an early holiday promotion.

I stood there, dumbfounded by this early display of fake trees, wreaths and decorations, trying to think of their underlying marketing rationale.

I could only come up with three plausible reasons:

1. They were going after a Guinness Book of World Records.

2. They were shooting the scene for some Hallmark made-for-TV movie and this display would come down promptly.

3. They’re going after terminally ill people who aren’t going to make it to December.

Imaginative yes, but these are completely irrational rationales for why this premature holiday promotion was launched.

As a marketer, I’m all for experimenting and dialing the knobs to try and find ways to help our clients make more money – especially in this post-2009 new normal. Though this looks really loony, I knew there had to be a reason.

According to an article “Christmas Sales Already? Why Santa is Popping Up in Stores Ridiculously Early” from Time Magazine, “In 2011, Wal-Mart’s layaway program launched in mid-October, compared to a late-August rollout this year…But stores wouldn’t roll out the holiday fanfare before the seasons technically haven’t even turned from summer to fall if there wasn’t a significant number of shoppers who were fully on board.”

Perhaps it is more indicative that Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, and Kmart shoppers, struggling parents, who are motivated by layaway programs and avoiding low toy inventories around the holidays. It’s a niche. It doesn’t mean all retail shoppers will embrace these promotions in September.

And it’s certainly not what I witnessed. No, the shoppers I saw looked down at this sizeable display with disdain and disappointment – not with cheer. They saw it as a sign that the commercialism of the holidays has become too much and a feeling of being rushed. It was Bah Humbug personified. (The store’s security surveillance cameras will confirm it.)

It didn’t make the chain look like they were on top of things. It made them look like they were out of touch and greedy. It screamed, “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Clause. And he has dementia and doesn’t know what day it is…”

Sure, there may be a few OCD outliers who love planning their holidays this early. Will their sales outweigh the loss of shoppers who will take their business elsewhere for a few weeks just to avoid facing it? And will they ever collect the data for the latter?
Or will they use the sales figures for these evergreens to justify starting in July next year?

In this uncharacteristically snarky rant of a post, I believe we should honor the calendar and leverage the most out of each season without skipping ahead. Now is the perfect time to plan and craft your holiday campaigns. (Shameless plug, I’m happy to be working on some right now.) Otherwise, in my opinion, ‘tis not the season.

If you agree or disagree, please comment and share this post. I think this is a dialogue worth exploring for our clients and consumers alike.