Opinion: Marketing Society - Retail has ruined Christmas

The early results are out and it looks like this Christmas was the poorest in terms of trading in 10 years. The big question is why - is it just a one-off blip or something more fundamental? If the Future Foundation's nVision research is right, and I believe it is, then the signs are that Christmas has reached a tipping point. The biggest and longest-running promotional event in history is in serious trouble.

There are three main reasons for this. First, there is the decline in religious observance. Second, retailer greed has destroyed the focus of the promotion. Third, customers are increasingly disaffected and marketing-savvy.

The disarray in the Church of England has been widely documented, so there is no need to reiterate its divisions and leadership problems here.

But it is worth pointing out the catastrophic effect these problems have had on the customer base for the Christmas 'brand'. As the symbolic power of Christmas has dwindled from a religious perspective, the idea of celebrating Christmas with gifts to loved ones to mirror God's gift of Christ to the world is simply no longer relevant and motivating to the vast majority of people.

Meanwhile, retailers have become excessively commercial in their approach to Christmas, and their customers see this. Festive promotions start earlier every year in short-term tactical attempts to steal a march on the competition.

All this has done is break the long-term conventions of Christmas, dilute its magic and stretch its motivating power to the point where it is largely broken.

Faced with the self-created decline in the impact of Christmas, retailers have responded by bringing forward sales to the pre-Christmas period.

At the same time they have disinvested in the Christmas brand values: in our public spaces we see decorations sponsored by commercial interests; in-store, the grotto is closed due to high costs and red tape. Santa has left the building.

Lastly, customers, having lost the religious driver to purchase, have been trained by retailers to understand that the same items will be discounted in the shops just one day after 25 December.

These factors have combined to undermine the positive motivations to buy at Christmas and reinforce all the negatives associated with purchasing at this time of year. The research confirms that Christmas shopping is a stressful experience: there is the difficulty of choosing the right present to give, and overcrowded shopping environments lead to even worse service experiences than usual. And all this in the knowledge that prices will be so much cheaper on Boxing Day, if not before. No wonder seven-days-a-week, 24-hour trading via the internet is booming.

People will still come together at the winter solstice, but we will never again see the power of Christmas as a retail promotional event. The Christmas brand has been corrupted and lost customers. The City should not be surprised if poor pre-Christmas trading becomes the norm.

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