Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Time to Shop...We Hope

It's two days before Thanksgiving, and, to put it mildly, there's a bit of concern in toyland. The season is late getting started, for one. Blame warm weather. Blame the fact that where I am in San Diego this morning, regular gas is averaging about $3.52 a gallon. Blame the mortgage crisis, or the fact that despite the happy noises TV money guys are making about 2 percent inflation as being not so bad, where it really hits the family in gas and groceries, prices are skyrocketing.

But don't blame the recalls. Last week a highly publicized poll from Harris Interactive indicated that consumers won't buy Chinese toys, but that's an unrealistic poll. Did they talk to parents? Of the 2,500-plus adults, how many of them are engaged in complex negotiations with the North Pole? We don't know. This is the kind of polling that is driven by PR rather than a real need to find information.

Now, in store checks around the nation over the past couple of weeks, we find that people are buying, but not in holiday quantities yet. They are aware of recalls, but the majority of our, admittedly unscientific, interview subjects said that the desire to support Santa's mission trumps country of origin concerns.

But for all the polls, projections and prognostications, the fact of the matter is: nobody really knows.

One thing we do know is that the season has been slow to start. And that may signal a trend. Costco had its Christmas decorations up just after the back to school season, and parents were not pleased. According to many whom we interviewed, they felt that pushing the season so early shortchanged kids by not allowing the sequence of the year to unfold in a way that made sense for kids. Several shoppers used the word "desensitized" when referring to killing the holiday buzz. Ironically, that's the same word many psychologists use describing kids' relationship to violence in video games. Good or bad, it seems, over-exposure inures us to response.

So, having deadened the desired holiday response, retailers are scrambling to throw change-ups and make consumers think that the season is really starting. Our favorite so far: Wal-Mart wants two Fridays in the week. According to Marketing Daily, the retailer has petitioned to create a second "official" Friday on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Well, they're getting publicity, even from our little blog, but you've got to be kidding me.

Can't blame them for trying, I suppose.

But at the end of the day, we think that the pendulum is starting to swing back. We'd love to pretend it's that people are starting to get control of their spending and thinking long and hard about consumerism and the holidays. But that's not very likely. Instead, as the first Clinton campaign so aptly said, "It's the economy, stupid."

You may be buying less, and from all indications from retailers we've spoken to, that's the fear. There are products people put a lot of faith in and money behind, and they're being left on the shelf in droves, despite all kinds of marketing. Still, remember it's your holiday to do with as you want. Take the time to make your family and the experiences of the holidays your central motivation, not the products. No matter what you do, do what you can support and what feels right to you. Remember, you're in control, not the marketing folks.