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The Christmas Shopping Wars

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 By Patricia McLaughlin

 

Remember when people used to get all gooey and sentimental about Christmas shopping? They'd rhapsodize about the lights, the carols, the scent of fresh-cut evergreens, crowds of twinkly-eyed shoppers, department store windows full of whimsical mechanical elves and dancing reindeer, extravagantly stocked toy departments and Christmas villages, darling kiddies shyly confiding their hearts' desires to Santa? They loved it. They looked forward to it all year. They counted on it for their shot of Christmas spirit.

Of course, that was before it devolved into a sort of Hobbesian pitched battle of each against each--shopper against shopper, store against store and, especially, store against shopper and vice versa.

 It may have peaked last year when a mob of pent-up would-be Wal-Mart shoppers, whipped into a frenzy by visions of "doorbuster specials," stomped a hapless Long Island store employee who had the bad luck to get between them and the marked-down flat-screen TVs.

This year Wal-Mart kept some stores open all Thanksgiving night and hired extra security to fend off opening-gun stampedes. There's Christmas spirit for you.

It's as if we've lost sight of even the possibility that commerce could satisfy all parties to it. In fact, it's entirely possible that merchants could make a reasonable profit by selling shoppers the goods they want at a reasonable price. They could even do it, as fair traders like Fair Indigo  have shown, after paying a fair wage to the people who make their goods. 

 

Shut up and buy

And yet it strikes us as a impossibly benign, absurdly unlikely Norman Rockwell pipedream. The way we see it now, shopping is a zero-sum game: If you win, I lose. 

For one thing, now that we're all serious shoppers, we're no longer satisfied with a merely reasonable price. We want bargains; we want the rock-bottom price. And merchants want more than a reasonable profit; they want a bonanza. We've become a nation of sharpies.

Christmas Shoppers.jpgEarly this year, a Wall Street Journal story about the menswear label Five Four confirmed your darkest fears about opportunistic retail pricing: "The first jeans they made, five years ago, cost $14 to make and carried an intended retail price of $68. A day before the pants shipped, a friend commented, 'Nobody buys jeans for $68. You should sell them for $110.' The partners snipped off the tags that night -- and the jeans blew out of stores at the higher price."

You can blame the media, too, for the frenzy. They're covering the holiday shopping story as if it were a knock-down-drag-out no-holds-barred last-man-standing street fight. Which is basically the same way they covered the presidential election last year, and the way they've been covering health care reform this year. Maybe it's the default approach to covering anything now: Who's winning, who's losing, what's the likely point spread? It's all strategy and tactics, infighting and backbiting, breathless play-by-play.

Even the headlines on shopping stories are loaded with fight metaphors: "The Gloves Come off at Amazon and Wal-Mart," (New York Times, November 24); "Smarter Shoppers vs. Smarter Sellers ...Retailers Prepare for Holiday Bargain-Hunting Battle" (Wall Street Journal, November 18).

 

The battle is joined

And how is that battle shaping up?

A week before Thanksgiving, Wal-Mart, fighting for its share of online retail, dropped the price of its Easy-Bake ovens from $28 to $17. Later the same day, Amazon, defending its turf, dropped its Easy-Bake price from $28 to $18. More shoppers visited stores and retail websites over the Thanksgiving weekend than last year (195 million, up from 172 million) but they spent less (an average of $343.31, down from $372.57 last year). One expert concluded that most Black Friday shoppers were driven by fear: They shopped because they feared that they'd miss out on a deal "too good to pass up," or they feared a chain would run out of an item they wanted.

After last year, when they got stuck with bales of designer merchandise and had to mark it down by 70 and 80%, luxury merchants have been backpedaling furiously, buying less and warning customers to buy early or do without. A story in the New York Times on November 18 reported that at Saks Fifth Avenue--pilloried by its competitors last year for being the first to cut prices--the $2,520 Marni shearling vests were already sold out. All but one of the $5,295 Brioni leather bomber jackets were gone. And they were sold out of Christian Louboutin's $1,995 over-the-knee boots with their telltale red soles, unless you could wear the lone last pair in size 11.

It's a tactic carnival barkers have been using forever: Hurry, hurry, hurry!  Weeding out a stack of catalogs the other day, I noticed that I could date the ones from Lands' End by the free-shipping stickers on their covers: "Hurry, ends March 12...," "Hurry, ends May 7...," "Hurry, ends June 4...," "Hurry, ends August 13...," "Hurry, ends September 10...," "Hurry, ends October 8...," "Hurry, ends October 20...," "Hurry, ends December 1...."

Hmmmm.

 

Patricia McLaughlin lives in Fairmount and writes often about fashion. 

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