Shop early, start wrapping, enjoy Christmas?

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By Dr Emma Gardner, Department of Strategy and International Business 
Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham.

“…in this anomalous and abnormal year, people have more pressing concerns than when to start their Christmas shopping.”

Last week, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) launched its new campaign: shop early, start wrapping, enjoy Christmas. The premise behind this new campaign is to encourage shoppers to begin their Christmas shopping, to spread out their spending and avoid what is normally a very busy time for retailers before Christmas. This is because current social distancing guidelines will make a traditionally hectic time even busier, as potential customers may need to queue to enter stores, resulting in shopping centres dealing with even larger, potentially stationery, crowds of people. The peak shopping period is also especially busy for behind the scenes staff such as delivery drivers and warehouse employees.

In theory, encouraging customers to begin their Christmas shopping earlier is sensible: the ability for retailers to deliver online shopping to customers was a particular problem at the onset of the UK’s lockdown. Supermarkets were unable to offer enough delivery slots to satisfy demand as customers opted not to take the risk of shopping in person. While supermarkets have since responded to this issue by expanding their fleets of vehicles and recruiting to enable them to offer more delivery slots, the Christmas period would normally see households increase their food and drink expenditure as they host guests and enjoy extra treats to celebrate the festive season. However, issues of perishability, combined with restrictions on social gatherings, call into question the applicability of the BRC’s campaign in regard to supermarkets and food and drink.

There is also the issue of suitable stock. While some shoppers may be ready to start their shopping, some retailers are yet to launch their Christmas ranges, so perhaps the BRC is a little premature in its campaign. Many shoppers like to take advantage of festive offers, but given it is still October, retailers may not have taken delivery of their Christmas stock, or be able to afford to bring forward and extend their offers.

With many individuals still working from home and usual social gatherings cancelled or restricted, this year may see reduced demand. There may be less social pressure to engage in polite gift giving, fewer secret Santa exchanges and in turn less spending on the high street. This, in combination with more customers turning to online shopping, may also result in reduced panic buying and impulse purchases which would normally contribute to physical retailers’ busyness and sales.

However, more importantly, in this anomalous and abnormal year, people have more pressing concerns than when to start their Christmas shopping. With 9.6 million jobs furloughed as reported to 20 September and 498,000 redundancies planned in the UK since March, jobs are vulnerable and many shoppers are avoiding unnecessary spending as they wait for inevitable rainy days. For those in more stable employment, they may still be reliant on November and even December paydays to finance their Christmas expenditure; according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in 2017/2018 there were 4 million fulltime workers living in poverty in the UK.

While for retailers, beginning Christmas shopping earlier may help them to avoid the usual peak trading and in turn reduce the need for temporary staff, it is a little insensitive to the worrying economic situation many individuals are facing. On the whole, this campaign is unlikely to have the effect intended by the BRC and it is unlikely that retailers will achieve the same sales as in previous years. Perhaps this festive season, we might see a resurgence of other values and a shift away from consumerism, given that taken-for-granted features of Christmases gone by – such as the ability to spend it with friends and family without restrictions – are now under threat.

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