One of the best marketers I ever hired was someone I plucked from the drowning wreckage of Woolworths, as it slowly sank in a flotsam of pick ‘n’ mix and remaindered books.
He brought much to Nokia, but among his best contributions was something he called "Christmas 365". It was nothing less than a year-round dedication – obsession, even – to the former religious festival known as Christmas.
Christmas 365 for Woolies began on the first working day of January and followed a detailed, step-by-step plan for the next 360-odd days, right through to the following December. It was predicated on the fact that those few December weeks were make or break for the business, dwarfing the rest of the year.
Put simply, a poor Christmas in anything other than a booming market could spell a slow slide into cash-flow problems, twitchy suppliers, and the vicious circle of sparse stock leading to fewer shoppers and less revenue for buying stock.
So if ever there was a Christmas worthy of a year’s preparation, this is it. After five long years of scratching out a living, now is the season for the high-street retailers to be jolly. The smarter ones will have spent the past five lean years outthinking the internet retailers, and this year consumers will be treated to their very best efforts. We’ll have price promises, money-back guarantees, click-and-collect, hands-on demonstration areas and anything else they can dream up to combat the faceless ones.
It might sound strange coming from someone who is so obviously pro-internet, but this year I’m rooting for the shopkeepers.
It might sound strange coming from someone who is so obviously pro-internet, but this year I’m rooting for the shopkeepers. I’m hoping that the weak have been put out of their misery, pushed into receivership by out-of-date business models or shoddy customer service.
After such a long recession, surely now we have only the Praetorian Guard of shops and shopkeepers remaining, ready to make the most of the one thing that all high-street retailers have over the internet merchants at Christmas: their real-world experience.
In this task, sentiment is moving in their favour. Once upon a time, we envied people who announced that they had done their entire Christmas shopping in November, from the tranquillity of the kitchen table. We thought of them as forward-thinking, clever even. Not for them the rush and panic of queues, buses and battles for parking.
Today we would consider them ever so slightly sad. Surely, I can hear myself saying, they have missed the whole point of it? What about the experience of shopping for Christmas presents? The displays, the lights, the theatre, the magic of walking into a store and not being entirely sure how you will express your feelings for someone, then finding a present and knowing it’s just right for them.
If you follow the logic of shopping for Christmas presents online to its logical conclusion, you would never bother with the cinema. Why would you, when you can stay at home and watch box sets?
Equally superfluous is a trip to a bar ("We tend to just buy a bottle of wine and a ready meal and stay in"), a gig or even watching live sport. All these are needless excursions for the stay-at-home Christmas shopper.
The harsh reality is that the internet can provide much of what we need, but it cannot replace the experiences we crave in real life that make us flawed, irrational people, rather than logical robots. That is the pot of gold I’m looking for this Christmas. Who will be the standout retailers that make my shopping trip a joyful experience – one that will enrich my mood, rather than just impoverishing my wallet?
A trip into – or even just a stroll past – Hollister, Apple, Starbucks or Hackett leaves me feeling exhilarated and uplifted. There is an intelligence and level of engagement to these stores that is part Disney, part Broadway, with just a little bit of velvet customer service thrown in. I don’t have a pet, but take a trip to Pets at Home, and you will see what I mean. It’s a zoo in there, quite literally.
Will it be a joy to shop at Marks & Spencer, Waterstones, B&Q or even your local supermarket? And if not, why not? Intelligent merchandising need not cost more than ordinary, run-of-the-mill design. Urban Outfitters seems to strip everything out of its shops and creates a rough, gritty-chic feel with a cost per square metre that would make Gap blush. It’s not about the money, it’s about the ideas, the imagination and how well these are brought to life for the shopper and – even more importantly – the sales representative.
Think of your Christmas shopping in these terms: you’ve got two constraints (money and time) and an infinite capacity to be entertained and stimulated. Shop where the experience is most rewarding, favour those who have practised Christmas 365 and set out to entertain you, and punish those who only want your money.
And if you can’t find anywhere near you that inspired you, do all your shopping online. Just don’t tell anyone.