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October 18, 2019

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Happy (already) holidays — and shopping

On the heels of summer heat, ailing retailers gear up for Yuletide cheer and spending

An Early Christmas

Customer service associate Jason White adjusts a display of Christmas merchandise at a Lowe's store in Henderson on Friday, Oct. 2, 2009. Launch slideshow »
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Heather Herman, a Lowe's department manager, talks with a customer Friday in the stocked and decorated Christmas aisle.

Welcome to the 2009 Christmas retail season.

The plastic Christmas trees appeared in Costco and Lowe’s just after Labor Day, when the daily high temperatures in Las Vegas still topped 100.

If there’s such a thing as a “war on Christmas,” it’s time to surrender. Thanksgiving has fallen. Halloween has been sacked. Labor Day is besieged. Santa’s sleigh is parked upon our neck and soon reindeer will be running everything. The population will be sold into elven bondage. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot trimmed in white fur stamping on a human face — forever.

How did we get to this point, where retailers have bloated the Christmas season to 3 1/2 months, or almost a third of a year?

The stores themselves either say this is nothing new or that it’s a service to consumers pacing their spending in hard times.

Abby Buford, a cheery spokeswoman for the world’s second largest hardware chain, says that for several years, Lowe’s has tried to get all Christmas inventory on the shelves of its 1,600-plus stores before Oct. 1, which often means starting around Labor Day. It’s all in service of the consumer.

“If they’re on a budget, it gives them time to look and decide what they want and plan ahead,” Buford said.

“Also, a lot of customers are decorating earlier,” she added.

In other words: This is our fault.

Wal-Mart, the world’s No. 1 retailer, hasn’t started decorating its 7,900 stores yet, said spokeswoman Melissa O’Brien — that would look weird — but most of the Christmas merchandise, especially the toys, is out. Some of the season-long sales have started, too.

This, O’Brien says, is because of the recession.

“We saw that when the economy started to go south two years ago, people were extending their shopping seasons,” O’Brien said. Wal-Mart’s research says that 70 percent of its customers are budgeting for the holidays and ready to go by October, and 20 percent of its customers are done shopping before Halloween. She then added that if you don’t want to miss out on this year’s “it” toy, you shouldn’t wait.

All of this near-altruistic consideration for consumers, is it real? Bah! Humbug!

We talked to Jackie Fernandez, a partner in the giant consulting firm Deloitte. She’s in charge of studying retail in the Pacific and Southwest areas. Her take? Retailers are scared. Sales have been lousy this year, back-to-school sales were off and although they need a big Christmas, they are worried they won’t have one.

At best, national holiday sales are projected to be flat this year in an industry that counts on growth. And sales may be even worse in Las Vegas and Southern California, if unemployment, foreclosure rates or gas prices increase.

Many retailers are trying to beat their competitors to Christmas. “For whatever reason, retailers really feel that the holidays put people in a better mood,” and a better mood means more spending, Fernandez said.

What they risk is a retail tragedy of the commons, in which it’s in each retailer’s interest to accelerate Christmas, but it can cause collective harm. For instance, Christmas means sales on popular items, and, Fernandez said, “If you’re a consumer, you think, ‘Why would I ever buy anything at full retail prices?’ ” It could cannibalize rest-of-the-year sales.

So will the pitiless expansion of Christmas continue until “Jingle Bells” replaces “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Fourth of July barbecues?

“It depends on if it works or not,” Fernandez says.

Ho, ho, woe.

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