OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

For the last decade, during the longest period of economic

expansion in American history, the mantra of consumers has been: "Shop

'til you drop." Now, with a new reality setting in, the question is

echoing from Wall Street to Main Street to Madison Avenue: if consumers

stop shopping, how many retailers, marketers and agencies will be

dropping?



That question becomes more pointed at this point in time, during the

holiday shopping season, traditionally the busiest weeks of the year for

commerce in an already commerce-centric nation. The day after

Thanksgiving, Friday 23 November, was what is known as Black Friday, the

start of the make-or-break period for retail chains and, by proxy, the

consumer product companies that supply the goods being sold.



Unlike the occasional "black" day in the stock market, where the dark

colour represents the dark mood after shares plunge in value, black here

is a harbinger of bright tidings. It represents the black ink that

begins to flow for merchants as they rack up profits, meant to

compensate for whatever sub-par results they endured earlier on.



This time, holiday shoppers must do yeoman duty for retailers to salvage

what has been a dreadful year. The economy began to soften in the spring

with the dotcom decline and was already weakened before the blow from

the the awful events of 11 September. The only way consumers are being

wooed into opening their wallets is by offering discounts, coupons,

deals and incentives such as no-interest loans from the major

auto-makers.



That's holding true for the holidays, too, much to the dismay of the

retail giants, which find themselves required to stimulate demand at the

only time of year they usually don't need to. The result has been an

orgy of promotional activity even before Black Friday, with bargains

galore at retailers on what you call the high street and at what we call

the high end, such as Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, Saks

Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.



Further down the retail food chain, the specials are unprecedented. For

instance, newspaper readers were greeted on Thanksgiving by ads from

Macy's department stores featuring coupons for $10 off almost

anything bought early on Black Friday or the day after (a day which

doesn't have a nickname, though after this season perhaps it will be

designated Suicide Saturday).



The purpose of the coup-on was pointedly explained: "It's our gift to

you - use your free $10 to jump-start your holiday shopping

throughout the store!"



By comparison, the Target discount chain, which has been enjoying

stellar success as consumers watch their spending, was running coupons

in its Thanksgiving ads for a free cup of coffee, "small size, day after

Thanksgiving only".



If sales are the only method of getting shoppers to drop dollars, that

means there will be less spending on the high-minded image and

brand-building campaigns that were once sufficient before Christmas -

and more spending on price-and-item ads in newspapers, direct mail and

circulars. The former are usually created for retailers by outside ad

agencies, the latter by in-house shops. The result is lumps of coal in

the stockings of the Madison Avenue mainstays at a time they can least

afford to lose revenue.



For 2001, it seems the only miracle on 34th Street will be a sweater

sold at full price.



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