Every year it seems the retail frenzy around Christmas creeps a bit earlier and earlier, and it may be that we have only ourselves to blame.
Despite the loud sighs and eye rolling that usually occurs when shoppers see Christmas decorations in stores parked next to an aisle of Halloween candy, shoppers are taking advantage of the layaway programs, the toy reservation schemes and early discounting as a way to soften the holiday's blow to the household budget.
Nearly four in 10 parents with children under the age of 18 begin their holiday shopping before November, according to a recent study of more than 1, 600 subscribers to couponing website RetailMeNot.com.
"The reality is that holiday shopping is officially in full swing, " said Jill Balis, senior vice president of marketing at WhaleShark Media, the operator of RetailMeNot.com.
The group has even gone so far as to trademark a term for the phenomenon, "OctoNovemCember, " and it plans to center a new marketing campaign — complete with a mascot, the Pumpkin-Headed Turkey Claus — around the idea.
RetailMeNot's research shows that only 15 percent of consumers wait until after Cyber Monday — the Monday after Thanksgiving, which now marks the end of the Thanksgiving weekend shopping frenzy — to begin their shopping. Far more, some 32 percent, said they are done with their holiday shopping by the end of Cyber Monday.
While the research suggests that an uncertain economy marked by high unemployment is contributing to the behavior, there may be a good reason to getting going on the holiday shopping before the Black Friday frenzy, which has long been considered the unofficial kick-off of the holiday shopping season. The reason: there may be more savings to be found if you shop before Black Friday.
According to the company, shoppers on RetailMeNot.com reported saving more on their purchases on Thanksgiving Day than they did on Black Friday. What's more, these shoppers spent 5 percent more on an average order on Thanksgiving than they did on Black Friday.
And for retailers, there are many reasons to start the push early. This year, several holiday sales forecasts are calling for retail sales to rise between 3 percent and 4 percent. Although that gain is higher than the average annual holiday sales gain over the past ten years, it is down from last year's growth rate. (For More: Retail Trade Group Sees Holiday Sales Up 4.1% )
That means retailers are fighting over fewer consumer dollars, and everyone wants to get the jump on their competitors.
Tools like layaway help drive consumers into the stores to make big purchases. Those shoppers also will need to come back to the store to make payments on the item, and ultimately pick up the item. Each time there is a chance to sell them something else.
Plus, those early purchases — layaway or otherwise — help focus the shopper on a specific store.
"You want to capture early share of the market, " said Craig Johnson, president of retail consultancy Customer Growth Partners. He explains that's why the retailers have to get the products out on the store floor early, so that shoppers will begin to make mental notes that they saw a certain item at a certain store. (For More: Why Rewards of Layaway Outpace Risks: Sears Exec )
That's also probably why some retailers have sweetened the layaway incentive by waiving layaway fees if customers shop before Halloween, as is the case with Toys 'R Us .
But layaway isn't for everyone, and that's why other programs are cropping up, including Toys 'R Us' "Hot Toy Reservation" program, which allows shopper to reserve any of the 50 toys on its hot toy list by putting down a 20 percent down payment by Halloween.
But Johnson doesn't expect either layaway or a reservation program on their own will make or break the holiday season for a retailer.
Still, retailers are reporting that shoppers are responding well to the programs. Wal-Mart told analysts this week at an investor meeting that the company has lined up $400 million in U.S. layaway sales in less than a month. That amount is half of what shoppers put on hold for all of the 2011 holiday season. (For More: US Wal-Mart Stores See Strong Holiday Layaway Sales )
This year, Wal-Mart began its layaway push in mid-September, a month earlier than it did last year.
There also is a case to be made for catching consumers when they are in a good mood. Consumer sentiment unexpectedly rose to a five-year high Friday, but consumers can be fickle and there are plenty of potential situations looming that could dampen the mood. Aside from the upcoming election, there is the so-called fiscal cliff — Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's term for what happens if Washington fails to address deficit reduction by the year's end — and the European debt crisis. Either could have an impact on holiday shopping. (For More: The 'Fiscal Cliff'—The Grinch That Steals Christmas?)
-By Christina Cheddar Berk, CNBC.com News Editor
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