Best Deal Of The Year? Bah, Humbug!

Best Deal Of The Year? Bah, Humbug!

Even though we complain about the shopping season starting too early, we may not have complete control over our behavior.

Ah, my friends, we’re in it now; in it together, like it or not. In the belly of the belly of the beast—but unlike Jonah, who spent three days and nights in the belly of the whale before being spat out onto dry land, we’re drowning. Drowning in the vortex of seasonal marketing, which we’ve all become accustomed to.
 
As you’re reading this, one of the biggest marketing events of the year, Halloween, has already passed and the only thing more frightening than having a zombie pop up next to you is not having taken advantage of the fourth-biggest retail promotional opportunity of the year (heading for No. 3), to the tune of $8 billion dollars, with some $370 million-plus spent on Halloween costumes—for pets. Yes, pets.
 
Even though Halloween has become scarily huge, the big kahuna remains the end-of-the-year holidays: Christmas, plus Hanukah and Kwanzaa. In fact, Christmas décor started popping up at retailers such Costco months ago, and in 2012 some consumer groups were irritated when Target started holiday advertising in mid-October; talk about pushing the season.
 
But retailers counter the too-early criticism with stats from polls such as Google Consumer Surveys, which shows 30 percent of us will begin our holiday shopping before Halloween, with 9 percent of that total starting before Labor Day. That gives credence to a Forbes survey showing 49 percent of marketers say they planned to launch a holiday campaign before Halloween.
 
While Black Friday has traditionally been the biggest holiday shopping day for retailers, in 2013 Cyber Monday’s $1.7 billion in sales beat Black Friday’s number by half a billion dollars. Then, of course, we have Small Business Saturday, started in 2010 by American Express to promote shopping at small businesses (this year it’s Nov. 29), and another new addition, Green Monday, which was started by eBay in 2007 after the online site experienced one of its best holiday sales days. Other retailers such as Walmart and Best Buy jumped on the Green Monday bandwagon (also called Cyber Monday 2), and now it’s another special promotional day of the holiday shopping season.
 
For those of us who think we’re getting the best deals of the season by shopping on Thanksgiving Day or waiting in line for stores to open on Black Friday, I have bad news for you: An investigation by the International Business Times found that only two merchandise categories— clothes and cookware—had the best deals of the year on Black Friday. But we’re swayed by limited merchandise offerings in the form of “door busters” that lead us to think we’re getting unbelievable deals on flat-screen televisions and other products. What’s unbelievable is the minuscule percentage of shoppers who are actually getting those low prices.
 
You would think we’d get burned out starting the season way too early and having to deal with crushing crowds and manufactured “peak experience” shopping days, but we may not have complete control over our behavior.
 
Studies have shown that when shoppers are given coupons and the prospect of great deals, their oxytocin levels increase. Oxytocin is a neurochemical that triggers a “bliss response” in our brains when we’re engaged in social behavior, or the feeling that we belong to a group. By combining the chemical and behavioral aspects of great deals and a sense of belonging, we can start to unravel the science behind the sell of the holidays.
 
It can be as simple as meeting one of our most basic needs, right in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy. The need for community, belonging, attachment, friendship and relationships in general is central to our being. When we’re in the thick of traffic in the mall parking lot, or standing in a long checkout line, even though it may seem irritating, we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.
 
We’re Vikings or Packer fans. We like the Minnesota Wild. We’re members of MPR.  Are you a member of Oprah’s book club? In one way or another most of us are connected with a host of others to something that’s greater than ourselves, something that rewards our need for affiliation (even if it’s in suffering, such as those who are fans of the Timberwolves or Twins).
 
The power of connection and affiliation can’t be underestimated, and to the extent that marketers can create that sense of belonging—whether it’s being one of the first 300 people in line on Black Friday, or part of a group within five blocks of Punch Pizza united by a geo-targeted promotion—bringing people together for a common cause brings in sales.
 
The popularity of social networks is testimony to the power of connection, and marketers have certainly not ignored this. Take it a step further up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and whenever somebody pushes the “like” button on something we’ve posted, it pushes our own self-esteem button. Get a “helpful” rating for a TripAdvisor review and count it as a small accomplishment. It’s a double dose,  satisfying our need for affiliation along with our need for recognition.
 
How we say we feel versus how we ultimately act is a very important distinction for marketers. We may say we hate negative political advertising, but the truth is that it works. We may say we don’t think it’s right for retailers to open on Thanksgiving Day, but we see thousands of people lining up waiting for store doors to open even before the pumpkin pie gets served. You can do all the focus group and online research you want, but consumers can be predictably unpredictable, and at this time of year they’re speaking more loudly with their wallets than at other times of the year.
 
When it comes to seasonal promotions it looks like the dynamics of first mover advantage are true. Another way to look at it: If everyone is open for business and you’re not, can you afford it? During two of the three biggest shopping seasons of the year?
 
Sure, a lot of us grumble about the barrage of advertising, retail promotions, traffic, and other variables of the holiday season. ’Tis the season to diss the season, but before you do, think of how you’d feel if you weren’t part of the whole mess. Kind of like a big family reunion. You may dread it, but you’d feel left out if you weren’t in the thick of it.  TCB
 
Glenn Karwoski (g.karwoski@creativepr.com) is founder and managing director of Karwoski & Courage, a marketing communications agency. He also teaches in the graduate school at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas.

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