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Christmas 'Creep' Foes Can't Buy Its Ever Earlier Start

November 17, 1986|MARTHA GROVES | Times Staff Writer

Way back around Labor Day, grocery stores across the country started displaying 4 million Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal boxes picturing a cuddly character named Santabear. Thus did the bear's promoters herald the 1986 Christmas season and get a jump on Jingle Bear, Bloomie's Bear and Kris Krinkles.

If the idea of Christmas in September frosts some die-hard traditionalists, chalk it up to competition, that old ghost of Christmases past.

"We knew that this promotion would be heavily emulated," said John Pellegrene, a marketing executive at Dayton Hudson, the Minneapolis-based retailer whose Santabear made its debut last year and is inspiring copycats nationwide. "There's no question that Santabear prompted an earlier public image of Christmas than we have normally had."

Despite Santabear's lovable nature, its September entrance is a symptom of what many view as an unfortunate trend: Christmas creep.

Consider these other signs: For the first time this year, K mart had a Christmas toy layaway sale in September. On Oct. 20, Tandy Corp., a Houston computer maker and retailer, ran what it suspects were the season's first Christmas television commercials.

Slavick's Jewelers is promoting a pearl sale with the slogan "Spend a white Christmas in November." And chain-link fences are already up around the Southland's increasingly scarce vacant corner lots, with red-and-white banners proclaiming the imminent arrival of Christmas trees.

Weeks before Halloween, it was difficult to escape signs of the season--from piped-in carols in elevators to the annual avalanche of Christmas catalogues. One by one, stores have installed their trim-a-tree boutiques. (Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, a particularly early bird, set up its Home for the Holidays shop in mid-September.)

Early Decorations

In Santa Monica, Christmas decorations arrived earlier because of logistics--the company that installs them has contracts with more cities this year. Along Hollywood Boulevard, garlands went up in early October, but that was to accommodate a movie-shooting schedule.

Gone are the days when decking the halls before Thanksgiving was akin to wearing white shoes after Labor Day. For years now, Santa Claus has tripped over trick-or-treaters. "Look! Christmas decorations!" Dennis the Menace cried effusively in a late-October cartoon that echoed an oft-heard sentiment. "That means it's almost Halloween!"

Do the seasonal bells and whistles spur consumers to pry open their wallets early, or merely create a backlash? That's tough to say, but, regardless of its effect, Christmas creep is fun to grouse about.

"I hate it," Estelle Nicol of Malibu said last week when browsing--not buying, mind you--at the Christmas Guild store in Westside Pavilion. "I'm from the old school, that you never did anything for Christmas until after Thanksgiving. (The merchants) almost push you into buying early."

'Retailers' Convenience'

For Carol Farmer, a New York marketing consultant, the early decorations and promotions are the retailers' "way of getting the maximum hype for the season. It's more for the retailers' convenience than for consumers'. Consumers are ready to shop when they get the Christmas spirit, which usually isn't until after Thanksgiving."

Farmer noted that Christmas is not the only time when retailers' calendars seem out of whack. Over the years, shoppers have had to adjust to finding winter wools in July and summer cottons in February.

Clearly, retailers--for whom the Christmas season can account for as much as one-third of sales and half of profits each year--cringe over the perception that they try to stimulate demand rather than satisfy it.

"A lot of retailers get tarred and feathered" at this time of year, said J. Janvier (Jan) Wetzel, executive vice president of marketing and sales promotion at the Broadway's Southern California stores. "We try to be sensitive to customers' concerns. It's very important that retailers not have a herd instinct and try to beat last year's figures by opening early."

Mid-November Opening

At the Broadway, "Christmas readiness day"--the mid-November date by which all stores are decorated and all Trim-the-Home shops stocked--has remained stable for years, Wetzel said.

On Oct. 3, May Department Stores shareholders attending a special meeting in St. Louis could browse at the newly opened Trim-A-Tree shop in the company's Famous-Barr department store. But that shop was installed early, spokesman Jim Abrams said, so that it could "be used for video presentations to buyers."

At May's Westside Pavilion store, some customers "took affront" at the Oct. 13 opening of the Christmas shop, Jim Scolari, assistant manager, said. "I was a happy guy when Halloween came." So far, he said, sales have surpassed projected levels, indicating that, although people might complain, they also buy.

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