The Cold Hard 26th of December
December 26, 2018 7:24 AM   Subscribe

This a question about USA retailing practices. Why is it that there is such an aggressive effort to remove all signs of Christmas in brick-and-mortar stores immediately after the holiday?

I had part-time jobs in retail in the late 1980s, and the stripping away of Christmas trappings happened pretty soon even then. But today, it is a dramatic overnight shock to see the holiday decor come down so abruptly, and the new January/organizing and spring/garden stuff come out immediately.

I know there are a lot of factors to the changeover in merchandise - including more precise ordering process, better predictive tools and just-in-time shipping. But I'm even more interested in consumer psychology and retail practice. There must be a reason stores think it's the best idea to drop the holiday music like a hot rock and yank down all the wreaths and garlands in the early hours of 12/26. What gives?

It's bothered me a long time, not least because those of us lucky enough to have a few days off this time of year might want to stretch the season a little and enjoy more of the lights and pretty decorations and music. Also, for a lot of people the Christmas holidays contain more parties, meals, and gift-giving occasions after the 25th, so it would stand to reason that you might still be shopping for seasonal stuff.

There are clearly reasons for this interesting practice, but I'd love to know more. Seeking answers from history, psychology, retail literature, and even anecdotes. I'm also curious as to whether this is just a USA thing - it always seems to me that many other nations, especially Europe, are much more in the practice of extending and honoring what is (religiously and secularly) a 12-day feast.

Thanks for your thoughts, links, and observations.
posted by Miko to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Well, one reason is that the messaging changes from "Buy Christmas presents!" to "Take advantage of the after-holiday clearance sales!" and they'll want to make very sure that the message change is clear and visible.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:29 AM on December 26, 2018 [12 favorites]

Here in the Netherlands, we consider Christmas to begin on Christmas' eve and last until the 26th is over. The 26th is the second day of Christmas, and certainly a part of it, so the decoration stays up until the store closes that day (if it opens at all). The 12 days of Christmas aren't really a thing here. For example, we don't sing songs about them.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:33 AM on December 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

My cynical take is that if you are thinking about Christmas on the 26th you are thinking about the money you just spent. The retailers want you thinking about the money you have yet to spend, which is usually the next big holiday.
posted by COD at 7:35 AM on December 26, 2018 [19 favorites]

which is usually the next big holiday.

Yes. Valentine's Day displays are already up in CVSs.
posted by Melismata at 7:42 AM on December 26, 2018

That attempt to focus people on Spending Yet to Come is a great insight. Does anyone know of resources from retail journals or consumer science that support that or these other ideas?
posted by Miko at 7:46 AM on December 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also, to get into more of the psychology: As a former child, I can tell you that Christmas is by far the most magical holiday of the year. The pretty lights, and fragrant pine trees. And the presents. The wonderful music. The delicious cookies, all the cookies and chocolate that you wanted, which you weren't allowed to have the rest of the year. (My mother, to this day, does a great Christmas.) And did I mention the presents? When you were a kid, you couldn't buy your own presents, so you were dependent on adults to buy them for you. And all of a sudden, OMG, there was the board game that you'd been drooling over the whole year. It was YOURS. To this day, whenever I see a beautifully wrapped present I get warm fuzzies, because it brings back the memories of that chocolate apple in my stocking and the Fisher-Price toys.

So after the presents have been opened, everything else is just one major anti-climactic adrenaline depletion. It's over. Done. Finished. I'm off to play with the things, until the school routine starts up again.

And it's all carried into adulthood in a strange psychological sense. I always rush to finish listening to all my favorite Christmas CDs before Christmas, because who the hell is going to listen to carols AFTER Christmas?? At the local farmstand, the Christmas trees are completely gone, as it should be, and if I saw them there it would be completely WRONG. The magical day happened, and it is over. We are no longer buying things for Christmas, because it has passed.
posted by Melismata at 8:02 AM on December 26, 2018 [9 favorites]

Data point: I stopped at the local nursery last Friday to pick up a couple three more poinsettias to festive this place up for the big family dinner and the staff there were busy pulling down all the Christmas deco. No poinsettias, no wreaths, a stack of clearance trinkets. The Friday five days before Christmas Day. At the rate we are advancing the start of the Season back toward Labor Day while simultaneously subtracting from the end, soon we will be celebrating Christmas on Halloween and Easter on Valentines Day.
posted by notyou at 8:02 AM on December 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Part of it is simply storage. When I worked retail, we started receiving Christmas stock on July 4th, with the majority of the Halloween items. This is in part because the Christmas product mix is 90% decided 2 to 5 years in advance to give the factory overseas time to produce and ship it. We start getting Valentine's Day stuff around Thanksgiving. So we really just need to move stuff out so we physically can store what we are always getting ahead of the season. This might be industry-dependent (we sold decorations plus seasonal gifts and seasonal craft stuff) but it makes sense if you're ordering waves of fast fashion, for example, to have a quick turnover. It is the r-strategy of retailing.

Also, the shopping season needs to be as long as possible so people spend as much money as possible. If you have eight weeks of Valentine's Day stuff staring you in the face, that is a much longer time during which you might be prompted to buy more of it. I think there is an element of normalization to it-- first you see Valentine's Day, then you see it all around you, then you go "I don't want to miss out" and then you buy a bunch of stuff. A short season may not prompt you to spend.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:06 AM on December 26, 2018 [10 favorites]

Paco Underhill's work is a good insight into consumer psychology. "Why We Buy" is very good, 'What Women Want" less so.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:11 AM on December 26, 2018

OK, last comment, but: people expect Christmas stuff to be clearanced the day after Christmas. This means they WILL NOT pay full price for Christmas items any time after 12/26. So that means, to the retailer, that we will NOT be getting the full profit margin on the item at any point going forward. If we're selling seasonal items, we want them to sell for as long as possible to get as many high-margin dollars as we can, hence a longer holiday shopping season.

We'd prefer to sell the Christmas items while they are still "worth" the full profit margin on the item to the consumer so we maximize the margin, but we don't want to have a lot of crap hanging around that nobody wants, both because of storage and because anything in the store that isn't moving is taking up the space that could be used by something that people will pay full price for. Clearance items are priced that way to maximize the margin return on an item...getting 70% or 50% of the profit on a thing is still better than getting 10% of the profit on the thing, or throwing the thing out and taking the pennies-on-the-dollar as a business loss writeoff.

And at a certain point, having a lot of clearance stuff around makes the full-price items seem overpriced, which is why clearance sales get really aggressive. It's about maximizing the return on the items you physically have, which is related to cultural forces like Christmas being on a specific day, people wanting swimsuits in summer, etc.

There is probably also research on how people react to novelty, but I don't know about it. Novelty has something to do with the happy brain chemicals, which is part of why people overeat and overspend compulsively. You can absolutely use the pleasure of novelty to cover the discomfort of, say, the end of Christmas, difficult emotions around Christmas, etc-- anyway, that's my base understanding of how a lot of compulsive behaviors work. Difficult emotion --> look for comfort/distraction --> retailer takes advantage of this --> spending money for novelty makes happy brain juice --> repeat.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:28 AM on December 26, 2018 [6 favorites]

Nthing it’s for the money. Keeping up Christmas decorations and merchandise will yield very few additional sales of that merch. You may have a couple people you didn’t see and still need to buy for, but you know that, and no display is going to trigger many additional impulse sales at this point. But putting up the next holiday’s merch will start those sales, and give you more opportunities to buy throughout that season.

I’m sure there’s some psychology, too, like how when you’re done with your meal at a restaurant you want your plate gone. But the stores only care about that inasmuch as it affects their sales.

(My credentials: Worked in retail for almost 40 years. Wow, I just did that math and that’s not ok.)
posted by greermahoney at 8:33 AM on December 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

This all makes sense. I still wonder why even the decorations have to be ripped down immediately (when my husband worked at Macy's, the team that decorated had to come in at 6 AM on the 26th to completely denude the entire store). Novelty might be part of it.
posted by Miko at 9:57 AM on December 26, 2018

In the supermarket we are told to remove any and all decorations the day after any holiday is over (including sign toppers). Even though we may have lots of leftover hams, we have to remove them from specialty cases to make room for tailgating items - it doesn't matter if the hams don't fit in the regular space for them, that's too bad, you need to change the cases over to freezers and put ribs in them. Immediately you will see soda displays increase, all for tailgating.

In the seasonal aisle, Christmas is immediately replaced with Valentines Day (the candy has been downstairs since November). The thinking seems to be that people are done with the holiday and don't need to be reminded. No one seems to buy anything, even reduced. It'll end up in carts with reduced signs, to try to get something for the items. Also, blnkfrnk hit the nail on the head: we just need the space. We have to get the Valentines stuff out of the back room and on the sales floor so we can make room for Easter candy and supplies. Sigh. It's a never ending cycle.
posted by annieb at 2:24 PM on December 26, 2018

My SO worked at Walmart overnight last night and when he came home, he described a "Dickensian" laser-focus on ripping down all signs of Christmas.

He also brought home a giant bag of Twix candy bars that had been marked down 75 percent because the exterior packaging was Christmas themed.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 4:24 PM on December 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

I still wonder why even the decorations have to be ripped down immediately

I think greermahoney's comment is the key to this: "Keeping up Christmas decorations and merchandise will yield very few additional sales of that merch. You may have a couple people you didn’t see and still need to buy for, but you know that, and no display is going to trigger many additional impulse sales at this point. But putting up the next holiday’s merch will start those sales, and give you more opportunities to buy throughout that season." (bolding mine)

I found this "think with Google" article from last Dec., where the head of shopping B2B marketing @ Google does some analysis of Google's data, and I especially noticed this part:
"When shoppers consider a new purchase, they spend 13 days on average shopping for the item. But once they decide to buy, almost half expect it either the same day or the next day."
Which, assuming this is accurate, suggests that the quicker a retailer can get the next "big sale" promo materials up and going, the earlier they start that 2-week shopping process in the consumer mind, and of course you want to have room in your store or warehouse for the stock for when they do decide to buy. (Even if it's not accurate, I'm betting it's "conventional wisdom" among retailers, although i don't have access to retail trade magazines to check.)

And "next big sale" isn't necessarily tied to the next holiday or season - there are "white sales" (bed & bath, especially linens and towels) and pre-Super Bowl TV/home entertainment sales, both usually in January.

The linked article also has this bit:
"In fact, last year we saw about 20% of all December store traffic happen in the six days after Christmas. And why is that? With searches for “clearance” spiking on Dec. 26, shoppers are likely looking to redeem gift cards, make returns and exchanges, find gifts for people they haven’t seen yet, or decide to “gift” themselves a little extra."
So, some evidence that people are really interested in deals in their immediate post-Christmas shopping, and the rise of gift receipts and easier returns/exchanges, the rise of gift cards as presents (WalletHub claims that gifts cards have been the most popular type of present for over a decade) suggests to me that "shopping for someone else" is pretty low on their list of priorities. Getting a good deal on shopping for themselves is their primary concern. (Anecdata: I'm on a handful of relevant-to-my-interests retailer email lists, and every email I've gotten from them since yesterday morning is either "LAST CHANCE TO SAVE IN 2018!!" or "SANTA DIDN'T BRING YOU WHAT YOU REALLY WANTED? BUY IT FOR YOURSELF!" And it's been that way for years.) So, as greermahoney says, keeping the Xmas decorations up doesn't really boost sales.

It feels like there's a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation - did retailer behavior drive consumer behavior, or the other way around - but either way it sure seems like in the aggregate both consumers and retailers aren't really interested in keeping the holiday season going past Dec 25.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:04 PM on December 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

It feels like there's a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation - did retailer behavior drive consumer behavior, or the other way around

Yeah, I guess this is the nugget of my question. Since the idea that the Christmas festival is one day is both recent (in the grand scheme) and fairly American, and also highly consuming-connected, I think the sudden end and lack of holiday extension probably has retail origins but would love to unearth a clear history of the evolution of the practice.

Thanks for all the answers and perspectives.
posted by Miko at 5:05 AM on December 27, 2018

I suspect that much of retailing is like much of economics: you can't afford to run an experiment, so you have some lovely theories about how things work that are quite likely to be largely wrong, mixed with a heaping helping of "many managers are incompetent." This accounts for many counter-intuitive things like not being able to find season-appropriate clothing during a particular season and not being able to find clothing that fits 40 percent (made-up number alert) of the customer base.

I used to have a relative involved in the fashion industry, and I heard a lot of "that's just the way we do it for [reason that makes no obvious sense]. So my unsupported theory is this: the reason they tear down the Christmas decorations in a mad rush is that everyone else does it, and they must know what they're doing!
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 4:14 PM on December 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

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