Way back around Labor Day, grocery stores across the country started displaying 4 million Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal boxes picturing a cuddly character named Santabear. Thus did the bear's promoters herald the 1986 Christmas season and get a jump on Jingle Bear, Bloomie's Bear and Kris Krinkles.
If the idea of Christmas in September frosts some die-hard traditionalists, chalk it up to competition, that old ghost of Christmases past.
"We knew that this promotion would be heavily emulated," said John Pellegrene, a marketing executive at Dayton Hudson, the Minneapolis-based retailer whose Santabear made its debut last year and is inspiring copycats nationwide. "There's no question that Santabear prompted an earlier public image of Christmas than we have normally had."
Despite Santabear's lovable nature, its September entrance is a symptom of what many view as an unfortunate trend: Christmas creep.
Consider these other signs: For the first time this year, K mart had a Christmas toy layaway sale in September. On Oct. 20, Tandy Corp., a Houston computer maker and retailer, ran what it suspects were the season's first Christmas television commercials.
Slavick's Jewelers is promoting a pearl sale with the slogan "Spend a white Christmas in November." And chain-link fences are already up around the Southland's increasingly scarce vacant corner lots, with red-and-white banners proclaiming the imminent arrival of Christmas trees.
Weeks before Halloween, it was difficult to escape signs of the season--from piped-in carols in elevators to the annual avalanche of Christmas catalogues. One by one, stores have installed their trim-a-tree boutiques. (Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, a particularly early bird, set up its Home for the Holidays shop in mid-September.)
In Santa Monica, Christmas decorations arrived earlier because of logistics--the company that installs them has contracts with more cities this year. Along Hollywood Boulevard, garlands went up in early October, but that was to accommodate a movie-shooting schedule.
Gone are the days when decking the halls before Thanksgiving was akin to wearing white shoes after Labor Day. For years now, Santa Claus has tripped over trick-or-treaters. "Look! Christmas decorations!" Dennis the Menace cried effusively in a late-October cartoon that echoed an oft-heard sentiment. "That means it's almost Halloween!"
Do the seasonal bells and whistles spur consumers to pry open their wallets early, or merely create a backlash? That's tough to say, but, regardless of its effect, Christmas creep is fun to grouse about.
"I hate it," Estelle Nicol of Malibu said last week when browsing--not buying, mind you--at the Christmas Guild store in Westside Pavilion. "I'm from the old school, that you never did anything for Christmas until after Thanksgiving. (The merchants) almost push you into buying early."
For Carol Farmer, a New York marketing consultant, the early decorations and promotions are the retailers' "way of getting the maximum hype for the season. It's more for the retailers' convenience than for consumers'. Consumers are ready to shop when they get the Christmas spirit, which usually isn't until after Thanksgiving."
Farmer noted that Christmas is not the only time when retailers' calendars seem out of whack. Over the years, shoppers have had to adjust to finding winter wools in July and summer cottons in February.
Clearly, retailers--for whom the Christmas season can account for as much as one-third of sales and half of profits each year--cringe over the perception that they try to stimulate demand rather than satisfy it.
"A lot of retailers get tarred and feathered" at this time of year, said J. Janvier (Jan) Wetzel, executive vice president of marketing and sales promotion at the Broadway's Southern California stores. "We try to be sensitive to customers' concerns. It's very important that retailers not have a herd instinct and try to beat last year's figures by opening early."
At the Broadway, "Christmas readiness day"--the mid-November date by which all stores are decorated and all Trim-the-Home shops stocked--has remained stable for years, Wetzel said.
On Oct. 3, May Department Stores shareholders attending a special meeting in St. Louis could browse at the newly opened Trim-A-Tree shop in the company's Famous-Barr department store. But that shop was installed early, spokesman Jim Abrams said, so that it could "be used for video presentations to buyers."
At May's Westside Pavilion store, some customers "took affront" at the Oct. 13 opening of the Christmas shop, Jim Scolari, assistant manager, said. "I was a happy guy when Halloween came." So far, he said, sales have surpassed projected levels, indicating that, although people might complain, they also buy.
Tandy Chairman John V. Roach received "two or three letters" last year about the company's early Christmas TV ads, but this year's prompted no complaints. The ads were "more by accident than design," he said. A special $799 promotion on a computer was timed closely enough to the holidays so that the company opted for one commercial to save money. Roach added quickly that having the earliest Christmas ad "is not a record we're trying to set."
By speeding up its Santabear promotion this year, Dayton Hudson hopes to build on 1985's stellar success--more than 400,000 of the 15-inch-tall, bright-eyed bears sold out in three weeks at the company's 34 Midwest department stores, all before Thanksgiving. At $25, or $10 with a $50 purchase, the company expects to sell "in the area of 1 million" this year, a spokesman said.
On top of that, the retailer has developed 120 Santabear-related products, including a book to be sold through the company's B. Dalton Bookseller division, place mats, cookies and clothing. The creature even spawned an ABC children's special narrated by "Top Gun" star Kelly McGillis, to be aired Saturday. And the company formed marketing ventures with General Mills (maker of Cinnamon Toast Crunch), American Express, the Sears Discover card and Ice Capades.
The promotion has proved valuable on a couple of levels. As a "purchase-with-purchase" promotion, "it gave the customer . . . an incentive to buy more," said Pellegrene, senior vice president of marketing. Moreover, the bear developed "a mystique all its own," making it worthwhile to "enhance its personality" and market a host of other products on a national level.
Ever quick to pounce on a bright idea, imitators--including Bloomingdale's (Bloomie's Bear) and K mart (Our Christmas Bear)--also found themselves bullish on bears. At Target Stores, Dayton Hudson's discount unit, a Kris Krinkles dog was modeled after the rare, wrinkled Chinese Shar-pei. (With a bow to Dayton Hudson's department stores, Target's promotional material says the stores are "well armed to face the ordinarily dog-eat-dog competition of the holiday season. Or, in this case, dog-eat-bear.")
The Broadway too started scrambling late last year to create an animal to follow in Santabear's paw prints. Over the weekend, the chain capped days of teaser ads with full-blown promos for Jingle Bear. Several hundred thousand bears were ordered in "the largest single promotion we've ever done around Christmas," Wetzel said.
The promotion "allows the Broadway to improve its image a bit," he said. "We think it will add traffic to the store and fun to shopping."
Customers may buy the bear, complete with ski cap and mittens, for $25--or for half that price with a $50 purchase. The promotion, Wetzel noted, "coincides exactly with our normal Christmas launch; we're not trying to jump the gun on that."
Dayton Hudson, however, is applying some not-so-subtle pressure designed to instill an early Christmas spirit. Last month's ads observed: "To get a Santabear this Christmas, you don't have to be good. Just fast."
Church leaders are particular opponents of early commercialization, but Bishop Oliver B. Garver Jr., Los Angeles Episcopal suffragan bishop, despairs of holding back the Christmas retailing tide. "We're fighting a losing battle, but it's our feeling that you celebrate Christmas after Dec. 25, not before," he said, recalling a December visit some years ago to retail-minded Tokyo, which was all decked out in Christmas regalia despite its tiny Christian population.
Then there are the stores that would not even be here without the holiday. The Original Christmas Store, part of a Houston-based chain, will do business at its Beverly Hills location only until sometime in January after having opened in August. So far, there have been no takers for an enormous, one-of-a-kind animated display called Bambi and Friends, complete with waterfall and a $65,000 price tag.
Some Keep Tradition
To be sure, some merchants hold fast to tradition. Nordstrom, a Seattle-based retailer with seven Southland stores, runs an ad each Thanksgiving wishing customers a happy holiday and inviting them to see the stores' Christmas decorations the next day.
And, in some sectors, the trend of Christmas creep may be reversing.
I. Magnin, a 26-store specialty apparel chain, mailed its holiday catalogue three weeks later this year than last. "Our customer really wants us to look at Christmas as a very special part of the year and not dragged out for two to three months," said Elaine MacNeil, regional vice president. Decoration of I. Magnin stores is staggered but this year is running 10 days to two weeks later than last year. The Beverly Hills store has been decked out for several days, but the Palm Springs store will go undecorated until just before Thanksgiving, MacNeil said.
In mail order, sales are getting later, thanks to overnight delivery services and increasingly reliable information about what is available, noted Katie Muldoon of Muldoon Direct in New York, a direct-marketing agency that specializes in catalogue marketing. "People are buying closer to the time of need," she said.
Williams-Sonoma, a San Francisco-based gourmet cooking business, is repeating an offer that was successful last year. For an additional $5 fee, catalogue customers can have orders shipped overnight. Spokeswoman Anne Kupper said: "The late shopper really appreciates it."