Halloween in August? Christmas in October? This Annoying Retail Trend Is Here to Stay

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You’re probably still slathering on sunblock and vacuuming sand out of your car, so why are stores already displaying Halloween merchandise? 

If Starbucks decided to resurrect its fanatically loved pumpkin-spice lattes during the dog days of summer, customers would probably cheer rather than complain. But when it comes to candy corn and skeleton decorations, seeing them next to the sand buckets and shovels just seems weird.

Nevertheless, brace yourself for more “holiday creep” this year, especially as we start getting closer to Black Friday and retail companies jockey for market share during America’s roughly month-long spending binge.

And they’ll probably start when you still have your Halloween decorations up. “We will certainly start to see Black Friday news and ‘early Black Friday’ sales in October,” predicts Brad Wilson, CEO and founder of BradsDeals.com. “As recently as 2009, we didn’t even launch our Black Friday site until early November. In 2013, we’d miss half the season if we did that,” he says.

(MORE: 8 Black Friday Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make)

This year, the trend of starting promotions early included back-to-school shopping. Stores like Apple, Wal-Mart, and some clothing chains started running deals at the beginning of July, rather than the traditional late July to early August time frame.

Investors waiting to see how hawking backpacks and binders in July went over with shoppers were disappointed by WalMart’s lower-than-expected revenue and drop in same-store sales in the U.S. for the quarter.  “Our expectations for the back half of the year are through a lens of cautious consumer spending,” CFO Charles Holley told investors. Similarly, department store Kohl’s reported a 3.5% drop in quarterly profits, while Macy’s said sales fell and lowered its profit forecast for the year.

That means we should expect even more early sale madness. “A weak back-to-school puts more pressure on holiday to deliver the goods,” says Alison Jatlow Levy, a retail strategist at consulting company Kurt Salmon. “Retailers will pull out all the stops to be the consumer’s first stop.”

The tendency to push the envelope around the winter holidays has been growing for years. Last year, the blog Consumerist called out Target for taking this whole “ghosts of Christmas present” thing a little too literally when it started running holiday ads in mid-October and putting up cheery displays of snowmen and reindeer right next to the haunted houses and tombstones.

And retailers twisted themselves in knots trying to come up with a catchy term for the day before Black Friday, when a handful of the nation’s biggest chains kicked off their Black Friday sales. Black Friday Eve? Black Thursday? We used to just call it “Thanksgiving.”

(MORE: Holiday Shoppers Can Look Forward to an Extra Bloated Black Friday)

“Thursday will certainly grow again this year in terms of number of stores open and dollars spent, even though consumer feedback is very negative on this trend,” Wilson says.

A survey last year found that nearly a third of shoppers said Black Friday started too early, but WalMart opened its doors at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving and had its best Black Friday ever — even though shoppers’ excitement over doorbusters was accompanied by protests mounted by labor groups and disgruntled workers. (Target also took flak for last year’s 9 p.m. opening, with a deluge of Change.org petitions arguing that workers should get Thanksgiving Day off.)

So, why do retailers do this? Stores claim they’re just giving customers what they want. “What the customer has been telling us is that she likes the defined times” to shop, Martine Reardon, chief marketing officer at Macy’s in New York, told the New York Times.

For stores, it’s all about getting ahead by getting a head start. Last year, we spent $59.1 billion on Black Friday weekend — a record — but sales collapsed in the subsequent weeks, with stores forced to slash prices.

“The broad brush was Christmas wasn’t all that merry for retailers, and you have to ask what those margins look like if the top line didn’t meet their expectations,” Kim Forrest, a senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group, told Reuters.

“They want to get ahead of competition by starting to sell items in advance of when others might typically do so,” Mintel retail and apparel analyst Ali Lipson says. “Also, in terms of holiday shopping we’ve seen the deals and promotions start earlier and earlier each year, again aiming to be top of mind among consumers.”

As much as some of us might complain about seeing displays of lawn-ornament Santas when we’re still raking leaves, research shows that “holiday creep” works. YouGov’s BrandIndex found that the perception Target had among moms rose last year after its holiday ad aired in October, and remained elevated for nearly a month afterwards. Maybe they saved time by loading up on both trick-or-treat goodies and stocking stuffers in the same trip.

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