Christmas? I had it wrapped up weeks ago

11th November, 2021

Christmas is coming early this year! Christmas shopping is anyway — or such is my plan. I’ve seen too many queues and empty shelves over the past couple of years to leave things to chance. (Supply chains, people!) I’ve been making a list, I’ve been checking it twice, but most of it was ticked off by Halloween.

When December comes, if you’re struggling to get hold of tasteful Christmas crackers, or Terry’s Chocolate Orange, well — sorry, suckers. If you snooze, you lose. I got them first. I don’t feel too much shame in admitting to this, because while the rush to buy toilet paper and petrol has caused nothing but trouble, early Christmas shopping should ease the burden on strained logistics.

Retailers are encouraging us to spend early — although they would, wouldn’t they? Only 400 shopping days before Christmas 2022 and all that.

There is precedent here: Big Tinsel has actively campaigned for a longer Christmas season before. In 1939, the US Retail Dry Goods Association realised that Thanksgiving would fall late, on November 30. This was perceived to be a problem, since hawking Christmas gifts before Thanksgiving was thought to be crass consumerism. (When the American shopper accuses you of crass consumerism, you know you’ve crossed a line.)

The RDGA duly lobbied President Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving a week earlier in November. He did, and the change eventually stuck, even though at the time his “Franksgiving” decree was perceived as being high-handed. One prominent political opponent even suggested it evoked “the omnipotence of a Hitler”.

Having a longer Christmas shopping season must make certain logistical matters easier. But would it — did it? — actually boost retail spending?

One view of the ever-earlier appearance of tinsel and jingle bells in the shops is that retailers are playing a zero-sum game with each other to attract customers. A family might spend a fixed £250 on Christmas gifts, food, drink and decorations regardless of whether they start in September or on Christmas Eve. All retailers are doing with their early festivities is to scramble to get a slice of that £250 before it is spent elsewhere.

The alternative view is that we shoppers are more malleable than that, and every day in which we are drenched in the Christmas spirit tempts us to spend more. To figure out which view is true, we need to look at the data.

In 2005, the economist Emek Basker did just that. She studied the US, where Thanksgiving now ranges between November 22 and 28, leaving as few as 26 or as many as 32 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. She found a clear pattern: Americans do indeed spend more when Thanksgiving falls early. The sums aren’t trivial: about $10 per person per day in today’s terms. Robert Urbatsch, a political scientist, used a similar approach to examine the jobs market and found that longer Christmas seasons lead to higher levels of employment.

Professor Basker estimated total holiday spending by comparing all spending in November and December vs all spending in September and October; the difference was about $300 per person in today’s money. Using a slightly different method, the author of Scroogenomics Joel Waldfogel has produced broadly similar estimates of the Christmas bump in sales.

The message is clear: retailers don’t just put up decorations to steal Christmas sales from each other, they are also boosting the total amount we impressionable customers spend.

Parkinson’s Law applies to spending as much as to any other task; Christmas expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Should we worry about this? I do. I find Christmas wonderful, but Christmas consumerism is not. The data clearly show that a good slice of our Christmas spending is shallow and wasteful. Most of us intuitively know this. Starting early might make Christmas more expensive and, therefore, more wasteful, but it is hard to see how it would make it more fun.

But as a lover both of Christmas and of ticking off lists, I am generally ahead of even the boldest retailers. This year’s supply chain worries have simply given me an excuse to push early preparation to a ludicrous extreme. Both the data and my own experience warn me that just because I start early doesn’t mean I’ll finish early: there is a risk that I simply spiral round, spending ever more on gifts that are likely to be increasingly ill-judged.

Nevertheless, this year my course is set. It will be an interesting experiment. My hope is that the early start has given me more time to be thoughtful and more time to find gifts that people might actually want. I hope to write some proper Christmas letters, catch up with friends not hugged since 2019 and perhaps even play a few board games.

My plan is that by the time Christmas is in full swing I will be able to focus on Dickensian feats of revelry and wassailing, rather than hurrying around crowded shops. It might work.

Wizzard wished “it could be Christmas every day” but, of course, Christmas doesn’t work like that — it has always presented a challenge of timing. Leave the preparations too late and the result can only be stress and anxiety, but start the partying too early and you’ll be out of seasonal goodwill long before Twelfth Night. Maybe this year I’ll get it right.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 5 November 2021.

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