Belfast Telegraph

Selling Christmas goods in August is just crackers

There are 138 shopping days to Christmas - not that you'd know as the High Street drums up trade, says Donald McFetridge

Several years ago, it came as something of a shock to consumers when we witnessed the arrival of Christmas crackers on the shelves of Marks -amp; Spencer in October.

It wasn't long, however, before Christmas merchandise started to appear in September. And it wasn't just the crackers - even though many shoppers thought the idea was 'crackers' to begin with.

Now it seems Christmas retailing is starting earlier and earlier each year. In 2009, for example, Dannii Minogue switched on Harrods' Christmas lights in October and many other towns and cities were quick to follow suit. Even Ballymena joined in, switching on their Yuletide decorations on November 3.

This year, both Selfridges and Harrods have already opened their Christmas shops. In 2010, they waited until August to begin their Christmas trading, but this year - in response to demand from consumers (or so they claim) - they opened their Christmas shops at the end of July.

And, it's not just Christmas crackers they're selling; they've got a whole plethora of Christmas merchandise already on offer and it's 'walking off the shelves'. I can personally testify to this.

One of the reasons Selfridges are using to justify the early opening of their white-themed Christmas shop is the fact that the number of overseas visitors to their Oxford Street outlet is up by 40% from last year. This is due to the number of increasingly affluent Chinese and Middle Eastern tourists. Last year, they sold 2,000 Christmas baubles during the first week of opening.

Similarly, Harrods claim that they are seeing a swell in the number of tourists from the 'Bric' (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries who can afford to splash out on their gingerbread-themed Christmas products.

Northern Ireland hotels and restaurants are also getting in on the act earlier each year.

One local hotelier I spoke to told me that her hotel is already fully-booked for Christmas parties; she only has slots for lunchtime left - even in these difficult economic times.

Mind you, this is not the case for everyone. Of those who are shopping early, it's probably for completely different reasons. It's more likely to be to spread the burden of Christmas more evenly over a longer period.

There have, of course, traditionally been Christmas clubs and savings schemes in some of our major department stores where families - keen to spread the cost - have contributed to these in-house programmes in order to be able to facilitate the increasing demands made on Santa each year.

In itself, that's no bad thing. Careful planning and budgeting is necessary for many consumers these days, right across all socio-economic groupings.

Nowadays, consumers have been divided into two basic groups: those who simply have to save and mind the pennies and those who choose to do so in the spirit of these days of economic austerity.

Although I'm happy to overlook, or try to completely ignore, the year-round Christmas shops when visiting Florida and write it off as over-the-top American consumerism gone crazy, I find it very difficult to get my head around purchasing mince pies, or Christmas baubles for the tree I never quite manage to get up each year.

In one store last week, I actually saw people buying tree decorations and fairy lights on a hot, humid afternoon while I struggled with the necktie and too-tight collar.

In my opinion, this smacks more of Chaucerian avarice and greed than anything to do with the celebration of the birth of Christ.

But it's looking more and more like we won't even have time to go to church on Christmas Day itself. It's already possible to shop online on Christmas Day; my fear is that it won't be long before we're also able to do it physically on the High Street as well.

Desperate measures for desperate retailers in desperate times.

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